Survivor’s Guilt


Is it possible to feel someone else’s pain?  Is it possible to suffer with them?  I used to think so. 

For many years, as I watched my mom struggle with her illness, I wanted to believe that I could know what she was feeling, and spent many hours worrying about her “suffering”.  This translated into a vague sense of guilt whenever I was enjoying myself, whether it be hanging out with friends, laughing with family members, or just going about my daily life, unfettered by the demons that haunted her.  How could I justify pleasure in my life knowing she was not well?  This sense of guilt was reinforced by my mom, who had a knack for random punishments whenever I was having too much fun.  It got to the point where I was even forbidden from going to church, because she thought everyone there was  plotting against her.  Of course at the time I thought it was just because she wanted me to be miserable like she was (or so I believed her to be).

It has taken me a long time to reach the conclusion that as much I want to feel another person’s pain, I cannot begin to comprehend what it is like to live in someone else’s skin.   I’d like to believe I can, because maybe then I might have some control over what is happening to them.   I can be understanding and empathetic, but no matter how hard I try, I will never know what it is like for them.   What would be hell for me, may not be for someone else. 

Still, I catch myself feeling a touch of “survivor’s guilt” sometimes, even when I am experiencing the simplest moments in life.  I’m able to go to work every day, spend quality time with friends and family, travel about freely, and the obstacles I’ve encountered in life seem small in comparison to what my mom faced. 

Over the years, I’ve learned to live in the moment and appreciate what is often taken for granted.  When I slip back into old feelings of guilt, I like to think about my mom, whole and well, and believe that she wants me to embrace all of life’s experiences, good or bad, guilt-free.

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