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Survivor’s Guilt

By Maralise Petersen

A few months ago, I was sitting in the too-small chairs located in the children’s section of my local library. I was there to meet with my son’s social worker, speech therapist, and another mother whose children were also in therapy. And as if often the case when women get together, the conversation buzzing around the table covered many topics (sometimes at random) from husbands to grand babies to the weather.

And then, the other mother said something that took all of us by surprise. She admitted that both of her children and herself have fragile X syndrome. She explained that she had hope for her daughter’s development because she had two X chromosomes and that fact lessened the effects of the syndrome. But her son’s prognosis for “normal” development was not as bright. She admitted quietly that the school system did not know about his disorder because she didn’t want him forced into special education. She looked resigned, not necessarily sad or distraught, but heavy with this burden.

As she was speaking, I looked towards the floor and noticed a black wrist band that the social worker was wearing. It gave the name of a private in the military and the date of his death, October 15, 2006. “Your son?” I asked with trepidation and sadness. “Yes, she replied.” “I’m so sorry.” She nodded. And so did I.

My son got dismissed from Speech Therapy shortly after this meeting. His therapist was unsure how to discharge him. I assumed that was because she didn’t discharge many patients, that they usually needed her services until the county no longer provided them. And I thought of the brother and sister with Fragile X. And I thought of my social worker and her son.

And I had survivor’s guilt. My son was progressing, his future was bright, our hope was renewed for his health. But there were many who were not so lucky.

What happens when ideal is no longer the standard that we’re trying to meet? What happens when perfect is revealed to be the falsity that it is? What happens when progress is not assured, when life is not limitless, when dreams are buttressed by fears and bad health, accident and injury?

Well, on that day, in that very small library, what happened was a lot of “Can you say this?” and “What color is the duck?” and “I’m sorry.” Maybe empathy and effort are all that is left. Empathy for those who continue therapy with little hope for improvement. Empathy for the death of others’ sons. Empathy for each others’ very personal and often private Gethsemanes.

September marks the one-year anniversary of Segullah the Blog. We have felt honored to have been able to share our stories with you. Thank you for listening…

About Maralise Petersen


11 thoughts on “Survivor’s Guilt”

  1. Wow, Maralise.

    Stories like that really bring things into perspective, don't they?

    For several months, I worked with parents who were in the process of having their children diagnosed with disabilities (autism, genetic disorders, etc.). Providing empathy was certainly one of my bigger roles.

    Then I sent them on to deal with the diagnosis alone. Sure, I referred them to support groups, "Parents of children with…" type groups, or guided them to books or on-line sources.

    I never got to see them past those initial stages of grief, stages that would be revisited over and over again as their children grew and faced new challenges, as their children reached landmark years without being able to do some of the landmark things normally associated with those years.

    I could only imagine what their future would be like. Your phrase, "others' very personal and often private Gethsemanes" speaks volumes.

  2. I so often think that my life is too easy, thus I must be too weak to deal with hard things. It plagued me for a long time, but I'm finally starting to put it to bed.

    I had to have the Spirit practically yelling to me that my life is a purposeful one, I do have a personal ministry to attend to, and the course of my life is understood and under the eye of the Lord.

    So, for whatever that means, I've really had to let myself "be" where I am. My pain is my own. We will all be touched by death and sadness somewhere in our lives. But we do not all have to bear the same crosses.

    This is a really tough one for me. I'm hounded by guilt all the time anyway. This tends to be another thing to feel badly about.

  3. I will never forget sitting in the church hallway in tears, unable to bring myself to participate in Enrichment classes, crying about the unknown I was facing with an abnormal brain MRI result. And who was it who was listening to me? A woman facing a recurrence of her cancer and very possible death. (She did, indeed, pass away.)

    I felt foolish, to say the least. And I acknowledged that to her. And then, almost in the same breath, I acknowledged that just because she had her trials didn't mean that mine were any less difficult for me. If we believe that we have tailored tutoring from God, then we ought to be "content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me." (Al. 29) That, to me, means, at least in part, not comparing trials (or blessings) and being grateful for the lives and challenges we have. I think it's hard not to feel guilty for the trials we don't have, unless we keep an eye single to God's glory and try to use our blessings to do and be (become) good.

  4. It's when you actually stop and consider others' trials that you realise that everyone hurts, everyone struggles, and no-one has the perfect life. You never know everything about someone – not even yourself.

    Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be able to choose your own trial, and so avoid what you most fear. For me, I would hate to be blind. For years I told myself that it would be highly unlikely to happen due to perfect eyesight, family history etc. Then it turns out that my previously unknown bio-dad has genetic early-onset blindness in BOTH sides of the family, in both sets of grandparents. So I may go blind after all.

    Which has now made me wonder just what we would miss if we did choose our own trials. Increased faith would be the first casualty I guess.

    Great post – thank you!

  5. My SIL's baby died eleven days after he was born. That was hard to watch, especially as I was pregnant with my son who was born 3 months later, perfectly healthy.

    A year later, my cousin lost a twin, a baby girl who was stillborn, despite the emergency C-section done to try and save the baby. That was hard to watch, too.

    When I related their stories to each other, each one said to me, "Wow, glad I didn't have to go through what SHE went through. I definitely got the better end of the deal. I can't imagine what she must have gone through."

    Personally, I think both of their situations totally sucked, and I would have hated to be in either one's shoes. However, I found it interesting that they had to tell themselves that SOMEBODY HAD IT WORSE THAN THEY DID.

    Yes, we can feel guilt about our blessings, but how often do we cast other people's lives in a worse light, so that we can remind ourselves of our own blessings? Guilt that precedes gratitude can't be totally bad, right?

  6. Guilt that precedes gratitude can’t be totally bad, right?

    I dunno, Heather, there is something about comparing trials to be grateful that seems a little off to me…especially, perhaps, because I'm in a big crusade to just stop the comparing in my life altogether. I don't think it really is the way for us to fully come to know and understand how the Lord works in our lives. There are no guarantees…we can be happy that we don't have the trial of so-and-so, but we might sometime, and then what?

    Besides, in my mind, comparing trials and being glad I don't have such-and-such in my life really leaves me more in a state of fear and insecurity ('what if that happened to me') more than it does gratitude. But maybe that's just me….

  7. "comparing trials and being glad I don’t have such-and-such in my life really leaves me more in a state of fear and insecurity (’what if that happened to me’) more than it does gratitude"

    Michelle, that is such a good point. I hadn't thought about it like that. I am working on the not-comparing thing, too. Even though hearing other peoples' trials automatically helps keep mine in perspective, I really like your point and the notion that thinking that way isn't a step in the direction of understanding how the Lord works in our life.

    Yesterday I read a blog of a friend of another faith who, in explaining a certain trial to her son, said, "When we get to heaven, the Lord will explain why . . . and we will praise him for his answer." That sounds like she understood how the Lord was working in her life, even if she didn't completely know the why's. I admired her perspective, which I too often lack.

    A side thought: I feel guilt when I am mean to my husband or when I waste huge amounts of time, but never have I felt guilty that I didn't have worse trials than my own. I can't imagine feeling that way, in fact. Is it part of the guilty-feeling trend among women these days? (I'm worried that question sounds snotty, which is not how I'm feeling; I don't know how else to ask it).

  8. Michelle-

    I might not have explained myself very well. I think that when a person is going through difficult trials, it is human nature to try and find somebody who has it worse, not to judge, but just as a way of reminding one that she still has a lot to be grateful for, and that things could be worse.

    I agree with you that comparisons and guilt induced gratitude is not the ideal way to come unto the Lord, or to gain a better understanding about what the Lord wants from us. Our gratitude about our lives and blessings should flow from our love of God, and our own humility. However, I do think it is hard to avoid comparisons when you are in the midst of a painful situation, and are grasping at anything to try and lessen the pain.

    And, like I said, I do think it is human nature when we here about something bad happening to somebody else, we automatically think, "I'm glad that's not me, and wow, I'm grateful for what I have." A friend of mine, a mother of two, just lost her husband to a fatal disease. While I weep with her, I would be lying if I didn't admit that I am also thinking that I'm glad my husband is still alive, and you can be sure I held him and my own two children extra tight after I heard the news.

    And, to your last thought, I would remind you of the scripture about how God has not given us the power of fear, but of a sound mind…..

  9. Heather, I totally get what you are saying, and I have thoughts like this a lot, "Boy, I'm grateful my husband is alive, my children are alive, and I'm alive." But I still have a reaction at some level in my gut to what is 'human nature' because I feel it robs me of something deeper, more meaningful. It likely says more about me than anything…that I can't just be grateful because I'm also afraid. I'm not fully at that sound mind stage because there is still a lot of fear in my mind and heart. Something I'm working on. 🙂

  10. My recent bout with survivor's guilt came after Hurricane Katrina. We had minimal damage to our house. We got new carpet. I went and stayed with Mom and Dad for a few months. I got a temporary job from a former employer that turned into a permanent, full-time work-from-home gig.

    Meanwhile, better people than me, people in my own ward, lost everything. I had a hard time being grateful for what didn't happen to me, because it was so random.

  11. I spent the first year of my daughters life with her in a children's hospital. My heart broke everyday for what I saw. The guilt is real especially when you know that you will probably get to go home sometime and most of these kids won't.

    After that I went on to have 2 preemies before I decided that I just wasn't meant to have more kids.

    We all have our crosses to bare, but sometimes I do wish the Lord would give me a knew one. Something different. The theme of my life seems to be "endure to the end", but seeing the other kids in the children's hospital always made me feel guilt for whining about my relatively small problem.


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