Monday, May 9, 2011

Tornado survivors wrestle with the guilt of being left behind, left alive

When a terminally ill person passes away, it’s earth-shattering, says Malcolm Marler, D.Min., director of pastoral care, but often the loved one left behind had some time to prepare. In the case of the April 27 tornado, however, healthy, unsuspecting people were sucked into the sky and flung across fields or ripped from their loved one’s arms. Those who remain are filled with sorrow and often guilt, Marler says.

He has to help people answer the question: “Why was I saved and not my loved one?” There’s no real logical answer, he says. “Much of life is a mystery, and not all can be explained,” he tells them. “Living with mystery is what makes us human.”

“Part of it is true guilt,” says Vivian Friedman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry, “especially in the case of spouses. They wish they would have died because living without their partner is difficult.”

Then, sometimes the guilt comes if there is any contributing factor, she says: “They say, ‘If only I told them to go into the basement.’ Or, ‘If only I didn’t ask them to go to the store.’”

But, there are ways to heal:
  • Find a support system – Surround yourself with people who love you and can offer emotional and physical care, Friedman says.
  • Realize that you are not in total control – “We are not in control of every part of our destiny,” Friedman says. Make peace with the fact that there was nothing you could do to prevent the storm and the randomness of the victims who were affected.
  • Find a way to honor your lost loved one – Open a charity in their name or maintain their rose garden, etc., Friedman says. “Death ends their physical presence, but not their influence in your life.”
  • Silence the noise – At some point, you have to turn off the TV and radio, Marler says. Reliving the events of the tornado in the media can have a negative effect.
  • Take a breather and get back to routine – Find a way to get rest; eat healthy and get back to some kind of routine, Marler says. “It is the hardest thing about this, it upsets routine which presents more stress,” he says.

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