Gratitude Surviving

Thoughts on Survivor Guilt

While I was undergoing cancer treatment, I found an amazing support group of fellow travelers at the Cancer Support Community of East Tennessee.

I loved group because once every week inside the walls of that room gathered other people who understood what I meant when I explained that oral chemo made my head buzz like electrical current, or that FOLFOX left me completely drained of energy for an entire weekend when I unplugged from the portable pump I had to wear for two days every other week.

We laughed, we cried, we commiserated. We also mourned. We lost two members of the group while I was in it, and at least one since I left. Another is in hospice as I write this. I’m hoping to pay her a visit this week. To say all the things that need to be said, hold her hand, offer support to her husband. Cancer sucks.

She’s one of two people I know in hospice care right now, and a third is likely to make that decision after the first of the year.

Already, the feelings of survivor guilt are setting in. My friends and I, we were in the trenches together fighting side-by-side. My pain, frustration and angst was also theirs, and likewise theirs was mine. I’m not alone in these feelings of survivor guilt. At least one other member of our group is feeling it too because we’ve chatted about it.

We are the left behind. Diagnosed at roughly the same time, sharing many of the same experiences. Yet I’m cancer-free and relatively healthy while my friends are in the process of leaving this earthly plane.

“Why?” questions abound. While there are no easy or adequate answers, those questions can help us lean into our faith and into each other. I have personally been admonished for expressing feelings of survivors guilt after my friend and colleague John passed away from cancer while I was in the midst of treatment. Let me go on record saying feelings are never wrong. You feel what you feel, it’s what you do with them that makes a difference.

So, here are a few thoughts on how to channel feelings of survivor guilt:

  • Share your feelings. We’re likely not alone in feeling guilty about staying behind while someone we care about is no longer here. Talk about it with other people. My support group friends will have each other to lean on in group, and I will have access to them by phone and email if I need them.
  • Be grateful. For all the wonderful things your loved one brought into the world and to your life, express your gratitude. Make a list, share them out loud, hold a little ceremony with mutual friends or support group members. Celebrate the life of your loved one by expressing gratitude for who they were and what they meant to you.
  • Remember them. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, when someone has passed away mourners use the phrase “memory eternal.” Remember your loved one by donating to or volunteering for a cause important to them. The American Cancer Society makes it easy remember those lost to cancer during the luminaria ceremony at Relay For Life. Other organizations offer similar meaningful activities.
  • Let their absence be your guiding light. The memory of every person I have lost to cancer has stoked my passion to keep working until cancer is but a memory. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but when John died it was his memory and all that he meant to me that kept me focused on the work we needed to do.

(The image for this post is “Survivor Guilt: 2D” by Melanie Luther.)


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