Survivor guilt

Survivor guilt (or survivor's guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor's syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It may be found among survivors of murder, terrorism, combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide, and in non-mortal situations such as among those whose colleagues are laid off. The experience and manifestation of survivor's guilt will depend on an individual's psychological profile. When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific diagnosis, and redefined as a significant symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Survivor guilt was first identified during the 1960s. Several therapists recognized similar if not identical conditions among Holocaust survivors. Similar signs and symptoms have been recognized in survivors of traumatic situations including combat, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, air-crashes and wide-ranging job layoffs.[1] A variant form has been found among rescue and emergency services personnel who blame themselves for doing too little to help those in danger, and among therapists, who may feel a form of guilt in the face of their patients' suffering.

Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, has studied the survivors of the capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise which killed 193 of the 459 passengers.[2] His studies showed that 60 percent of the survivors suffered from survivor guilt. Joseph went on to say: "There were three types: first, there was guilt about staying alive while others died; second, there was guilt about the things they failed to do – these people often suffered post-traumatic 'intrusions' as they relived the event again and again; third, there were feelings of guilt about what they did do, such as scrambling over others to escape. These people usually wanted to avoid thinking about the catastrophe. They didn't want to be reminded of what really happened.

Sufferers sometimes blame themselves for the deaths of others, including those who died while rescuing the survivor or whom the survivor tried unsuccessfully to save.[3]

Survivor syndrome

Survivor syndrome, also known as concentration camp syndrome (or KZ syndrome on account of the German term Konzentrationslager),[4] are terms which have been used to describe the reactions and behaviors of people who have survived massive and adverse events, such as the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.[5] They are described as having a pattern of characteristic symptoms including anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and mood swings with loss of drive.[6] Commonly such survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others—such as their family, friends, and colleagues—did not.

Both conditions, along with other descriptive syndromes covering a range of traumatic events are now subsumed under posttraumatic stress disorder.[7]


Waylon Jennings was a guitarist for Buddy Holly's band and initially had a seat on the ill-fated aircraft on The Day the Music Died on 3 February 1959. But Jennings gave up his seat to the sick J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, only to learn later of the plane's demise. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes." This exchange of words, though made in jest at the time, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.[8][9] Jennings, who later became a country music star, expressed survivor's guilt about Richardson's death.

Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, haunted by his experiences in Auschwitz, explored his survivor's guilt extensively in his autobiographical books, notably in I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved). His death was reportedly a suicide, and towards the end of his life he suffered from depression, possibly induced by his experiences.

In 1945, the USS Indianapolis got torpedoed by a Japanese sub and sank in the Philippine Sea. Most of the crew survived the sinking but were left adrift for days. Only 317 survived the whole ordeal. The Captain of the USS Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III was court-martialed for hazarding his ship. Despite the captain of the Japanese sub standing up for McVay, he was convicted of gross negligence. Living with survivor's guilt and hate mail for years, McVay killed himself in 1968.

In an interview on Lifetime TV's Unsolved Mysteries, Lawrence "Larry" Geller, one of Elvis Presley's closest friends, reported that Elvis, as a "twinless twin", was plagued by guilt over the death of his infant brother, Jesse Garon, who was stillborn. Elvis had confided to Geller about his concerns that maybe he had absorbed more than his share of the nutrients while he was developing inside his mother's womb, causing his twin brother to starve to death before he was born. Elvis had also related to Geller about how his mother had tried to comfort her son by assuring him that "they would all meet in Heaven" after their lives on Earth were completed.

Cultural references

The 1979 novel Sophie's Choice and the subsequent movie feature a Polish Holocaust survivor who had to choose which one of her two young children was allowed to survive.[10]

In the 1980 film, Ordinary People, based on the novel of the same name, Conrad Jarrett is a young man who struggles with surviving a sailing accident which killed his older brother. As Jarrett realizes that he is angry at his brother's recklessness, he confronts the very cause of his problems and begins to accept that his own survival had nothing to do with his brother's death.[11]

The TV series Rescue Me follows the lives of firefighters post 9/11 in New York City, focusing on Tommy Gavin, a 9/11 first responder suffering from severe survivor guilt over the civilians he was unable to save and the other firefighters who died in the attack, many of whom he personally knew.

An episode of Law & Order: UK is entitled "Survivor's Guilt" and involves one character coping with how his colleague was shot while he survived because he was called away to see his new grandson.

This phenomenon is also referenced several times throughout Kendrick Lamar's 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly.[12]

TYPE-MOON's 2004 visual novel Fate/stay night featured Emiya Shirou as the protagonist, whose survivor's guilt from 10 years ago was his main motivation during the whole novel, especially highlighted in the Fate route.

Rise Against, a popular punk band, released a song named "Survivor Guilt" on their 2011 album Endgame.

In the Hunger Games series Katniss feels survivor's guilt as she and Peeta had survived the games but others didn't and the deaths she caused were also haunting her.

In Doctor Who, the Doctor is apparently responsible for ending the Time War by erasing his homeplanet Gallifrey. Being the only survivor of his species in the entire universe, he develops survivor's guilt as part of the trauma, which is openly addressed in the episode Before the Flood.

Batman's main motivation for fighting crime is an unresolved survivor guilt.

In the TV show Arrow the main character, Oliver Queen, suffers from survivor's guilt in the episode "Three Ghost."

In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Max Vandenburg displays signs of survivor's guilt in the chapter known as "A Brief History Of The Jewish Fist Fighter".

In the 2006 movie We Are Marshall, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty all play members of the 1970 Marshall football team who were not on the plane when their team plane crashed. Fox played Red Dawson, a coach who gave his seat on the plane to another coach, Mackie played Nate Ruffin, a player who was injured and did not make the trip, while Geraghty played Tom Bogdan, a player who overslept and missed the flight. All are haunted by feelings of guilt that affect them long after the crash, into their later lives.

See also


  1. JoNel Aleccia, "Guilty and stressed, layoff survivors suffer, too",, December 15, 2008
  2. "1987: Zeebrugge disaster was no accident". BBC News. 8 October 1987. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  3. Bonnie S. Fisher, Steven P. Lab. Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention, SAGE, 2010, p. 33, ISBN 978-1-4129-6047-2
  4. "The evolution of mental disturbances in the concentration camp syndrome (KZ-syndrom)". February 1990. Retrieved 2010-12-07.
  5. Walt Odets, "In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS", 1995.
  6. Raphael Beverley, (1986). When disaster strikes. PP 90-91. Century Hutchinson, London.
  7. Wilson JP, & Raphael B Editors. Theoretical and Conceptual Foundations of Traumatic Stress Syndromes. The International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, p. 1. Plenum Press, New York. 1993.
  8. VH1's Behind the Music "The Day the Music Died" interview with Waylon Jennings.
  9. "Waylon's Buddy: Jennings Never Forgot His Mentor". CMT.
  10. Bertman, Sandra L. (1999). Grief and the healing arts: creativity as therapy. Baywood. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-89503-198-3.
  11. Corr, Charles A.; Balk, David E. (2010). Children's encounters with death, bereavement, and coping. Springer. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-8261-3422-6.

Further reading

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