Thoughts on survivor guilt and the Santa Rosa fires

Thoughts on survivor guilt from Therapist and Life Coach Patty Bechtold at, Santa Rosa CA

Here in Santa Rosa, survivor guilt has become a topic of conversation during the past month. Quite a few clients, friends and relatives have expressed their thoughts and feelings about it to me. And I’ve had my own moments with it too.

While I know I’m lucky because I didn’t lose my home, I’m sad about how many others did. Sometimes I even wonder why this happened to them but not me.

At times you might wonder too: Why did the fire take that neighborhood and bypass mine?

Survivor guilt is to be expected in the wake of the fires, as well as after other traumatic experiences.

Still, it can be hard to make sense of the confusing mix of emotions that come with it. So I want to dive a little deeper into it this month and share some thoughts I’m having about it.

Survivor guilt is often described as the belief that you’ve done something wrong because you survived when others didn’t.

Logically, you probably know you haven’t done anything wrong. But emotionally, it’s hard to shake the feelings of responsibility and shame.

You may also feel confused because you’re experiencing an emotional tug of war that pulls you in different directions.

On the one hand, you’re incredibly grateful and relieved that you’re safe. On the other hand, you may feel guilt and regret about having made it through.

The most important thing to know about survivor guilt is that it’s normal.

I believe survivor guilt…

  • is a natural extension of grief. It’s not right or wrong, it just is.
  • shows your capacity for empathy. You step into another’s experience and feel compassion as well as pain: Why them and not me?
  • reminds you that we human beings are quite capable of experiencing many different, and paradoxical, emotions all at the same time.
  • helps you remember that grief touches all of us in some way. None of us gets through life without experiencing it.
  • gives you opportunities to come together with others who are feeling it too by sharing your story and getting it out in the open.
  • opens you up to make meaning of your grief and guilt, which is an essential part of mourning and healing.

The other important thing to know is survivor guilt may lure you into thinking that your own grief process is unimportant.

You might think that compared to others who had an actual physical loss, your loss is minimal and you should just get on with it.

This, however, is as far from the truth as you can get.

So please remember…

  • You don’t have to be stoic and just get through this.
  • You don’t have to compare your experience of grief with anyone else’s.
  • You never have to minimize what you’re feeling.

A resource to help after the fires

Last month, as I went looking for resources to help my clients (and me), I stumbled upon this tiny little book:

Healing Your Grief When Disaster Strikes by Alan D. Wolfelt

Not only is Wolfelt a well known author and educator on grief, but he also lives in Colorado wildfire territory and lost his own home in a fire.

The book contains 100 practical ideas for coping with all different facets of grieving after a natural disaster. So if you’re looking for help you’re sure to find something here that will speak to you.

Yes, you are grieving…You see, even if your home, your belongings, and your loved ones were spared, if your life has been touched by a tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake, fire, drought, or other natural disaster, you are experiencing grief. You might not think of what you’re going through as grief because you might associate grief primarily with death, but whenever you experience loss, you grieve.

-Alan D. Wolfelt

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It is my great joy to offer counseling, therapy and life coaching to women, as well as women’s groups and retreats. You can work with me in my Santa Rosa office, as well as by telephone/secure video if you’re outside the area. To schedule a free consultation, click here or call 707-742-9844.

Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

I help women find their way back to their deepest wisdom when they feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. On my blog I write about the stories, insights, ideas, and wise words I’ve picked up along the way. Thank you for being here.