How to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt

By Jenn Rockefeller

You are free and clear. You are not with the abuser anymore. You can live your life free of abuse, pain, shame, and a host of other things. Yet, you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Why?

Some domestic violence survivors may face what is called survivor’s guilt. They may be asking themselves, “Why did I survive when so many others were killed by their abuser?” What are some ways these survivors can cope with the guilt? What can survivors do to move forward past the guilt to a place where they can help fellow survivors?

What is survivor’s guilt? 

According to Medical News Today, survivor’s guilt is “when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Survivors of domestic violence are among those who have survived a traumatic situation and are left wondering why they survived when so many have not. They also begin to wonder if there was something they could have done differently to prevent the situation.

Survivor’s guilt is characterized by feelings of guilt, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, difficulty sleeping, and more, according to Very Well Mind.

Ways to cope 

Survivor’s guilt can follow a domestic violence survivor for months or years following their situation. But this doesn’t mean it needs to cripple them in their healing journey. There are ways to cope with their feelings.

  • Write it down – Holding everything inside is like letting something fester for an extended period of time. If you don’t do something to let off the pressure, you’ll bubble over. Write it down in a journal if you must. Let it out.
  • It’s okay to feel – Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that it’s okay to let these feelings in and acknowledge them. We survived, while someone else may not have. Why did we get out of our situations when someone else didn’t? It’s totally understandable to feel what you’re feeling.
  • Time to grieve – Grieving for any loss is vital to healing. It’s okay to give yourself room to mourn the loss of others who did not make it out of their situations.
  • Turn it around – Channel your grief into something positive so that you can make a difference in the fight against domestic violence. Volunteer at your local shelter, organize a rally in your area, or raise money and donate it to an organization like Break The Silence Against Domestic Violence.
  • Connect – It’s important to connect with other survivors so that you know you aren’t alone. Volunteering is a great way to connect and help others at the same time.
  • Self-care – Perhaps one of the most important things is to find a path of healing that works for you. Incorporate self-care activities into your daily routine.

What can survivors do to move forward? 

It is completely normal to feel guilt following a traumatic event. Holding onto those feelings, though, will only consume you and hold you back. While it’s okay to acknowledge it, try not to let it take over your life. There are ways to move forward in your healing journey while still acknowledging your feelings.

To get to a place where you can help fellow survivors will take a lot of time and patience. It won’t happen overnight. Often, I find myself wanting to finally be completely free of the pain and guilt, but I know it will take patience with myself so that I can process the feelings naturally. But I have been helping other survivors for several years now. How can you get to that place too? Below are some ways that might help.

  • Acknowledge – The first part of moving forward is acknowledging what you feel. Allow the feelings to come to you. The key is to not dwell on them. Process the feeling. It’s totally normal to have this response to the trauma you endured.
  • Connect – Connecting with others who have been through what you have will not only help you cope, but it will also help you move forward. You will come to learn that you aren’t alone and that others have been through similar situations and feelings.
  • A force for good – Survivors may also find it helpful to give back to their community in some way. Volunteering your time at a local domestic violence shelter, donating gently used clothing or toys to a shelter, and educating the community about domestic violence are just some of the ways you can be a force for good.

Perhaps one of the things that helped me most in my healing journey and helped me cope was coming to understand that I couldn’t fix him. Survivors cannot fix the abusers. We can’t love them more. We can’t act a certain way. We can’t save them. And once I accepted this, I began to move forward on a healing path of hope, strength, and peace.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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