Overcoming survivor’s guilt
Hania Hakiel makes a point-by-point guide to recognise your own survivor’s guilt and come to terms with it, as well as positive steps you can take to address some of the feelings that it brings with it. This article is the third of a 3-part series on survivor’s guilt – find links to the first and second parts at the bottom of the article.
How does one overcome survivor’s guilt?
Below you will find a little plan on how to bring into your life more balance, peace and control when experiencing survivor’s guilt. Feel free to give it a try and adapt the plan in any way that may suit you better. I wait to hear from you about your experiences and methods that help you heal. You are a specialist and the main expert when it comes to your health, body, mind and healing process.
Recognize what is going on within you
Nothing is as scary as the unknown. Giving a name to what you are experiencing means taking back control. One way to do it is to take a sheet of paper and jot down everything that comes to your mind as an answer to the question “How are you right now?”. The most important thing is that you do not judge what you write. Welcome anything in whatever form it is. Pay attention not only to your thoughts but also to your body. The most powerful thing to do is make it into a weekly ritual. What if you bought yourself a beautiful notebook to start and end each day with a few minutes of writing down something such as “morning and evening state” of your mind and body”? You can do this with either words or drawings, as there are states that may escape the realm of language. If that all sounds difficult, try to just write single sentences starting from: “I feel….”, “There is this thought that keeps coming to me…” “I am sensing in my body…” “Now on my mind…” “Now in my body…” After writing down everything at once or after one week of journaling, read it to yourself loudly. Try to recognize elements of survivor guilt and grief. You can also give names to other states you can recognize in your writings. Even in darkest moments, there are always beams of joy and hope. Try to recognize them too!
Be your best friend
Either you have written just a few sentences or you ended up filling the whole notebook. Read it again, this time as if it was written by someone else: your brother, child or a friend, someone you deeply care about. Read it and reply in form of a letter with all compassion you can find within yourself. Reply mirroring the feelings you can recognize. Mirroring means validating your feelings and maybe finding new words and metaphors for what you hear and see, all with unconditional empathy. You may feel an urge to give yourself advice, but is it really the most effective thing to do? From my experience, what we lack in life the most is someone to listen patiently, accept that this is what we feel, acknowledge that we have a right to be like that and recognise that there is nothing wrong with us. Usually, when we feel safe and loved, we find our own ways out of the crisis. When we are calm and secure, our brain is able to best produce solutions for us. So I propose to validate your feelings, recognize what unfulfilled needs are behind them and locate them in the body versus talking yourself out of them. So write a reply letter to yourself as you were your best friend!
Actively look for social support
Opening up to people around you and starting sharing your struggle openly while offering your support to others can break the isolation and bring the comfort you are looking for. When opening up, you will hear stories of people who are going through similar pain. You will discover you are not alone and you have a lot to offer and share.
Create a ritual to move through grief
Survivor’s guilt is a common element of a more complex process – grief after loss. Grief takes time and asks for your patience. Grief takes you for a ride through different states, from denial, through anger and deep sadness to hopefully what is peaceful acceptance at the end. We can’t hurry through it. Every person has their own pace and you may feel that it has already been too long… I get it, but the only answer is, that grief needs time to heal – especially when it is as complex as grief experienced during ongoing military conflicts. You may have lost important family members or friends. You may have also lost parts of your identity, your home, and your neighborhood. Maybe some people that are important to you are still healthy and alive, but the exile or war has changed them so much that they seem foreign to you. In this sense, people you used to know are gone even if still alive. And there are so many things you are not even sure are really gone. Is it time to say goodbye to your homeland or instead do everything to come back one day and live your Berlin life like you’re still living in an Arabic Arabic city? Even if you are trying to live like everything is normal, everything is actually in constant transition. A grief ritual may help your soul deal with loss and realise that something can be physically gone but still nurturing you by living in memories and in the way you live. What kind of a ritual? You may…
- Write a poem, letter, song or even create a piece of art.
- Use social media and create a photo album with your memories. Or print photos and articles and put them on the wall at your home.
- Organize an event celebrating a dear person or a place you call home, with food, music and even films.
- Write down your story and send it down the river in a glass bottle or create origami birds out of these sheets of paper and hang them at the ceiling or on a lamp.
- Make a piece of art out of old objects reminding you of the past.
- Have one evening per month dedicated to someone or something you miss a lot. One evening when you listen to music, read old messages, and look at the photos. One evening per month so you know you will not forget them and that you can calmly live the rest of the month, where you aren’t actively remembering them. One evening when your nostalgia, sadness – or even anger – can fully express itself.
- Light a candle for a few minutes each day.
These are just some examples which you may follow – or you may find and create your own, personal grief ritual.
Attempt to use suffering as a life shifting experience that has the power to push you towards a better and deeper life
Being so close to death helped you discover the value and miracle of life. Let it be the force motivating you to use every moment of your life to make this world a little better place. The psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, author of logotherapy, a method based on the belief that human suffering can be alleviated by finding the purpose of life, says:
Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
There are many ways. You can think of volunteering at a local organization, or just practicing little acts of kindness every day – for example, taking time to talk with your neighbors or reading a bedtime story to your child. Experiencing how short and unexpected life is, can be a paradoxical motivation to pursue your dreams, let it be art, education, dance or working towards world peace. As Frankl said in another moment: “What is to give light must endure burning.”
Take good care of yourself. And I mean GOOD!
Your body and mind must stay calm and healthy to be able to contain all the hurricanes that come through you and to be able to transform suffering into a motivation to help others and improve this imperfect planet. So “sleep, eat healthily and do sports” is not only your annoying doctor talking, but it is a necessary precondition of allowing the healing process to happen. You may think “how the hell can a diet help me deal with my tragedy?”. But it’s not about the diet, it’s about focusing on living. Having a good night’s sleep, spending time in nature, moving your body in dance moves or at the gym, eating healthy, switching off your mobile phone at least half an hour before going to bed, getting a daily amount of hugs and supportive conversations – it is not a luxury, but a duty. If you struggle to motivate yourself to go jogging or to take a long bath, then treat it as a pill prescribed by a doctor that you have to take. Fake it until you make it, as we say. With time, your brain will notice you practicing a healthy lifestyle and think, “Oh okay, I guess everything is normal. I can stop panicking and keeping all muscles tense. I can stop releasing so many stress hormones”. This balanced person you pushed yourself to be, will unveil your potential and set the real you free from inner terror.
In the Quran there is a verse in Surah Al-Luqman (31:12) that says: “…Any who is grateful does so to the profit of his own soul…” In the Bible’s book of Proverbs (16:24) we find similar words:
“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
Now a decade of psychological research shows that people who count their blessings are happier, recovering quickly from mental and physical health problems. So try it! You can have a gratitude alarm set on your phone twice a day to remind you to stop and recollect everything good that’s happened so far. You can also have a little diary where you write everything good that happens to you. Here we talk about even very little things – colourful leaves on a tree, the nice smell on the street when you pass by someone roasting nuts, a good quality Internet connection when you call home, the smile of a stranger… Research shows that even 10 days in a row of writing a gratitude diary increases your level of optimism about yourself and life. You can also practice thanking people more often for little things. Let it be a good meal served in a restaurant or a person being kind to you at the job center (yes, I heard it can happen). Saying ‘thank you’ loudly is like a mantra – a celebration of the goodness of people and life.
Apply what you already know
This should be maybe advice number one. You are here. It means you survived, and that you are strong and skillful. It means that you already have amazing resources to live and thrive. Again, take a piece of paper and name at least 5 elements of your personality and of your life, that help you go through difficult times (it can be more than 5, of course!). Let it be your creativity, optimism, ability to forgive, to rest and sleep long hours, to cook amazing food, your friends, family, prayers, or reading skills – but really, write it down! Put this list somewhere you look at everyday – above your bed or on the bathroom mirror and read it every day. We tend to forget how much we already have! Part 1 and part 2 of this series can be found by clicking the highlighted links. Hania Hakiel is a psychologist and psychotherapist who runs the GSBTB Open Art Shelter. This article was first published in a special mental health edition of the Arabic-German newspaper Eed Be Eed, in partnership with Give Something Back to Berlin.