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Carol's Columns

Survivor Guilt

Our role as parents is to love, nurture and protect our children. However, when our child dies, this role produces a powerful backlash experienced as guilt. Our children are not supposed to die before us. This is not the natural order. Survival guilt is fostered by this unnaturalness, no matter the age of the child.

In the case of murdered children whose deaths were sudden, unexpected and violent, parents are even less prepared. They are often faced with a greater sense of helplessness in the struggle to regain feelings of control and rebuild their lives. This can lead to a more intense form of guilt. For how can they possibly go forward and enjoy their lives when their children were so cheated of theirs?

Guilt can be a prominent and devastating part of the grief process. Irrationally, we may feel that somehow we could have and should have prevented our child's death. To think anything less seems a violation of the parental role.

Our children are our flesh and blood. They are our future. We consider them almost immortal, charging them to carry on the family name, traditions and values. Therefore, after the death of a child it is not uncommon for a parent to express that a part of them died with their child. Struggling back from this feeling takes an enormous effort and becomes impossible if we feel we are betraying our child by enjoying our life again.

Survival guilt was never more real to me than a night several days after my daughter's death when my friends and I went to hear our musician friend Brian play at a local inn. Still reeling from the suddenness of Kristen's death, my friends had suggested we get out for a while and have a change of scenery. Always enjoying Brian's music, I thought this was a good idea. But no sooner had we entered the inn when I felt a hush in the crowd. This was a small town where the news of Kristen's tragic death traveled fast.

I felt fingers pointing and whispers behind my back. My reaction was GUILT! I imagined them saying, "Her daughter just died and already she's out listening to music." This may have been far from the truth, but it was what I felt. I wanted to shout, "I am only trying to survive!" I soon became uncomfortable for other reasons as every song unexpectedly reminded me of Kristen. Brian's music, which was usually a pleasurable experience, now made me feel worse. Drenched in tears, I left embarrassed, never wanting to go out in public and "expose" myself again.

Over time, in the sorting through process that grief demands, I concluded that if heaven is as wonderful as it is supposed to be, then the only pain Kristen must have is knowing her loved ones continue to be in great pain. This perspective motivated me to move forward in my grief and begin to rebuild my life. Forgiveness was the first step. If I was to really honor who Kristen was, I needed to learn to forgive myself. For I knew this is what she would want.