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Coping with Survivor Guilt & Grief

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle M. Bacon/Released

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class
Desiree D. Green/Released

Following the death or severe injury of a fellow service member, friend or loved one, you can sometimes feel shock, responsibility for the event or remorse for surviving. This is a common emotional reaction often called “survivor guilt.”1

Individuals may experience survivor guilt following casualties during which fellow service members are severely wounded or killed, or when they are at home while their unit is deployed. Individuals coping with survivor guilt may find themselves wondering questions such as:

  • “Why didn’t I get hurt?”
  • “Why did I live when other people died?”
  • “What could I have done differently to prevent it?”

These expressions and feelings are common; they are part of how we as humans grieve.

Four Tips on Coping with Survivor Guilt

It is important to remember that guilt is a common reaction to loss and it can ultimately be part of the healing process. However, if it is not addressed, excessive guilt can lead to psychological health concerns, such as depression, apathy or generalized anxiety. The following tips may help you cope with guilt: 1

  • Acknowledge your feelings and recognize that they are part of a normal reaction to uncommon circumstances.
  • Seek out other people for support. Share your feelings with a peer, friend or family member or join a support group to help you cope.
  • Take time to mourn. Attend a religious or community ceremony or plan your own way to remember your fellow service member, friend or loved one
  • Turn your feelings into positive action. Make a contribution, hold a fundraiser, give blood or participate in any volunteer action that makes you feel like you are serving the greater good.

While feelings of guilt can accompany reactions to combat stress, they can also be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder if they continue for more than a month.2 If your feelings of guilt continue for months or interfere with job performance or interaction with others, it is important to seek professional help.3

Understanding Grief

While guilt is an emotional reaction, grief is the healing process people experience following a traumatic event.1 Grief can have physical and psychological effects and may impact performance during combat and other military operations, as well as your long-term health.4 The symptoms and behaviors associated with grief include: 4

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Temporary loss of control of emotions (e.g., anger and aggression)
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Recurrent nightmares or frequent painful remembrances about the death or traumatic event
  • Anger; some people may have urges to get revenge (“payback”) for the death or traumatic event
  • Difficulty concentrating or sustaining mental focus
  • Thoughts or impulses to harm yourself or others

Grief will generally fade in time as you mourn your loss. Severe symptoms of grief are considered common following a loss, but if the symptoms persist for more than six months then you should seek professional care.5 If you have thoughts about hurting yourself or others, seek professional help immediately. Resources such as the Military Crisis Line and DCoE Outreach Center are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for those who need immediate care and support.

Coping with Grief and Loss

Connecting to others is a key factor in dealing with grief. Sharing your loss makes grief easier to manage. Here are additional tips to help you cope with your grief:5

  • Stay in touch with others; don’t let yourself become isolated
  • Be patient. It takes time to absorb and accept the loss of a fellow service member, friend or loved one. Don’t rush into making life changes such as a deciding to get married, have a baby or make a major purchase, which are likely to add to your stress
  • Think of the good times; it’s OK to keep your friend or loved one in your thoughts
  • Reach out for support by talking to your friends and family when you are ready; others may not want to make the first move or be afraid to intrude on your privacy
  • Seek professional help if you are:
    • Thinking of hurting yourself or others
    • Unable to function months after the traumatic event or loss (e.g., unable to care for children, hold a job, take care of household matters)
    • Severely depressed or feel hopeless about the future
    • Using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism
    • Struggling with substantial feelings of guilt or uncontrolled rage
    • Still experiencing intense grief after six months

Additional Resources

Sources

1Grief and Guilt,” [PDF 34 KB] North Dakota National Guard. Last accessed Feb. 1, 2014.
2Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” National Institute of Mental Health. Last accessed Feb. 1, 2014.
3Combat Stress Reactions,” [PDF 477.2 KB] Operation READY, U.S. Army. Last accessed Feb. 1, 2014.
4Combat & Operational Stress,” Leaders Guide for Managing Marines in Distress. Last accessed Feb. 1, 2014.
5Understanding Grief Reactions and Tips for Spouses on Coping with Grief,” [PDF 307.47KB] Operation READY, U.S. Army. Last accessed Feb. 1, 2014.

Last Reviewed: 02/01/14
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