6 tips for dealing with survivor’s guilt

April 30, 2015

By Nicole Furey, program coordinator

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On Saturday, April 25, 2015, YACC remembered the young adults we have lost in our community. At 3 p.m. EDT (and throughout the day), we connected as a community — despite being spread out across a big country — for a minute of silence as we did what felt right for us in that moment. You can look on social media for #YACCremembers to see how some of us participated.

While events like these help us connect and cope, they can also bring up some feelings like sadness, anger, and survivor’s guilt. I know how it feels, and we’re here to help.

When I was 19, I was diagnosed with a rare type of tumor that sat on the bottom of my brain and at the top of my spine. I sat with my parents in a tiny room while my neurosurgeon — who was in another province — spoke to me via video conference and told me I needed to be in Toronto as soon as possible; he was making room in his schedule for my “several surgeries.” I don’t remember anything after that, except seeing my sneakers walking across the pavement of the hospital parking lot as I walked between my parents towards our car.

The next year was a whirlwind of surgeries, hospitals, bloodwork, MRIs, less-than-fun travel, and radiation. I felt as if I was going through the motions of someone else’s life, and for that entire year, I had no idea who I was looking at when I looked in the mirror.

I did exactly what the doctors told me to do. I showed up for my MRIs, took my medication, rested, got out of bed after my surgeries when I was told to — the list goes on. I was terrified, sick, and miserable, yet, at the same time, I had someone telling me exactly what to do and when to do it. This made my life quite simple. I didn’t think of this as “the fight” or “the battle.” In fact, I didn’t think much about it at all. I was in complete denial that this (the dirty C word) could be happening to me at 19-years-old. So, for a long time I pretended it wasn’t. I did what the doctors wanted me to do, and I lived. Convenient.

It wasn’t until my treatments had finished and — in the medical world’s eyes — I was “better” that I started to process some of what had happened to me. Thankfully, it was around this time that I was introduced to YACC and, well, we all know where that road has lead.

Flash forward to last winter. I sat at my desk in Toronto where I was working on a master’s degree. I learned that a young woman who had been connected to YACC had passed away. I had only met her once, briefly, but it had been enough to make an impact on my heart. I sat alone and cried, and for the first time in the years since I had been healthy, I felt guilty about this.

I remembered being disconnected from my own “fight.” I wondered why I was allowed to continue to pursue my dreams when so many of my other young adult brothers and sisters were not. I did nothing more that made me more deserving.

It was a horrible feeling. It is rare in our grown up lives that we get to experience new and unusual feelings, and at that moment at the age of 24, I was experiencing what I knew to be survivor’s guilt for the first time.

This year has been a particularly difficult year for our community. I lost several friends, as I know many of you reading this did. While the feeling of guilt after these deaths was not new to me, it was no easier to deal with, and I know I am not the only one who has experienced this.

Here’s what to do if you are struggling with survivor’s guilt:

Talk about it. There’s no shame in feeling this way, and you may be paving the way for others to speak up.

Reach out for support. You can connect with us at YACC, your cancer buddies, your supporters, and/or your health professionals. We can also help you find a health care provider in your area if you need help.

Allow yourself the space to feel. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, happy, when you think about the friends you’ve lost. Sit with those feelings and process what they’re telling you.

Journal. Writing down your feelings can be extremely helpful if you’re trying to figure things out or work though some uncomfortable feelings. You can also create a private blog. Sometimes we access feelings and thoughts we didn’t know we had when we start writing and/or talking about it.

Challenge those negative feelings. Are they helpful? Maybe there are, for a little while, but it’s also okay to let go of the guilt.

Be okay with the ebb and flow. Bad feelings, just like the good ones, will come and go. Don’t be hard on yourself about this. If you want to have a day to allow yourself some quite space to reflect on the time you spent with your friend and/or loved one, do it, and when the days of happiness and dance parties in your living room come around, be ready to embrace those, too.

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