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December 14th, 2009
02:22 PM ET

Grief and guilt

By Ashley J. WennersHerron
CNN Medical News Intern

A friend and colleague of mine died in July, from injuries she suffered when she was hit by a delivery van in Ocean City, New Jersey. Casey A. Feldman was a 21-year-old student with a promising future in journalism, balancing a full course load, an internship and the job of news editor for our school paper. Her family recently endowed a scholarship for communications students, so that others will have the opportunity to intern without monetary worries. Few people applied, despite a simple application, requiring only a recommendation, resume and a 200-word personal statement.

I applied, but I didn’t want to. Only a true need for financial aid (and my mom’s encouragement) pushed me to fill out the application. It sounds irrational, but I do not want to take money that could be going to the girl I knew. Nearly five months after her death, I want the money to be waiting for her and I would feel guilty if I won the scholarship. It feels wrong and disloyal to gain profit from Casey’s death, yet she would want others to have the opportunity to explore internship options and career choices.

It’s survivor’s guilt.

People who lose someone tend to find that, in their grief, they experience a sense of powerlessness. This complete lack of control, in all facets of life, stems from our emotional worlds toppling from the loss.

“When we lose our grandparents, we lose our past,” said Diana Nash, a psychology professor at Marymount Manhattan College and a bereavement counselor. “When we lose a sibling or a peer, we lose our present. If we lose our children, we lose our future.”

The idea of losing my present struck a profound and terrifyingly accurate chord for me. The comfy, college bubble of carefree immortality had been yanked away, leaving an acute void. Where I was once planning and daydreaming about my future, I began simply hoping there will be a future for me and wondering why Casey and her family didn’t get to keep their dreams.

The world loses logic when someone dies suddenly. I entered a mode of complete reaction. I couldn’t actively make decisions or plans — everything I did was in reaction to things around me. I felt as if I had no control at all.

The scholarship was something I had some say in. I could decide to apply, or not to apply. It was my decision, I thought, until I realized how difficult it was to make. Nash explained that even the scholarship itself is a plan for the future, something that was just proven hazy. It’s instinctual to avoid exposing yourself to a situation closely related to the experience that just caused so much suffering. The scholarship is a happy thing in itself, but it is also another manifestation that Casey is still gone, and the guilt doesn’t bring her back.

Have you experienced guilt after the death of a loved one? How did you come to terms with it?

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