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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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Denise

    You hit the nail on the head with this one...that is exactly how it feels. Great blog.

    December 14, 2009 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. dinah zane

    It took me almost 20 years to appear conscious after losing both my brothers in horrific accidents back to back. You sort of hang out in a high level of detachment where feelings are void until one day you see someone who makes you feel a feeling. Trauma does strange things to our mind, perception and often leaves the survivor with GAD.General anxiety disorder where we are worrying who next will die.Where your skin crawls with every ambulance and the triggers of anything remembering that night will keep you sleepless for weeks.Hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming was a god send at eliminating these horrific images in my brain.

    December 14, 2009 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Kraig Rasool

    Dealing with death is something that i think was left of the class on Life 101... It is never simple...always complicated and the feelings are
    neverending. My godmother passed away from Lung cancer, and its
    been almost five years and I can still hear her laugh and see her
    smile..I often wonder how if she was still around life for all of us would
    be different. I also have a feeling of why her? Guilt is a hard pounding emotion that grabs you by your ankles and hold them tight...you can
    move around but not far...The void that fills the air around you can
    never be filled even when you just think about all the good times you
    spent together....so what I do is think of her as still being around just
    unavailable...busy with other things, in my mind I know she is gone, but somewhere also i feel her presence and i sometimes see her
    actions in others and this brings peace to my soul and heart... Never
    really letting go and never forgetting.

    December 15, 2009 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. rachael

    I don't think you ever truly get over it. It just gets a little better with time. I personally have lost multiple people young and close to me. Also, grandparents. The most recent my sister who was only 25. I am constantly thinking of her and feeling guilty and worried that I too may not have a future. It is torment of guit and why's constantly but the days have become less frequent. I have lost another sibling also that occurred 10 years ago and I know that in time the pain of his death eased. I hope in time I find away to come to better terms and not live with fear in the back of my mind. I think grievence takes time and there is no simple solution.

    December 15, 2009 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mark

    having experienced the loss of good friends in my teens and early 20's, it's what seperates being a carefree kid and being introduced to adulthood and the realities of life, and that life here is finite

    December 18, 2009 at 15:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Katherine

    I was never quite sure that I "believed in" survivor's guilt - it seemed as
    if someone who escaped a plane crash, in which others died, would be
    so thankful to still be alive that they wouldn't have time to feel guilty.

    Well, I found out the hard way. And even the survivor's guilt I felt made
    me feel guilty! Talk about confusing... My daughter was born the same
    day as a little boy in our city. They both had the same, very rare,
    birth defect syndrome. My daughter had many, many other life-
    threatening issues in addition to the birth defects; the baby boy was
    otherwise quite healthy. No one (except her father and me) expected
    our daughter to live; and everyone "knew" the baby boy would make it.

    !2 weeks after they were born, my daughter was home (still very sick,
    8 pounds, on loads of meds and machines, but home) - and the
    beautiful baby boy (who'd gone home, but then was re-admitted to
    the ICU) died. His mother and I had become extremely close, and
    talked in person (while both were hospitalized), and then by phone
    every single day.

    I was devastated for her. I felt guilty that my baby was still alive, while
    her precious child had died. And THEN I felt guilty that I felt guilty! -
    I mean, how could any mother feel "guilty" that her beloved baby
    was still alive??! (I guess you could call it "Survivor's Guilt by

    Almost 15 years later, and my daughter has fought her way through
    every surgery and medical challenge. Life will never be simple for
    her, but perhaps it is that much more meaningful to all of us, because
    it was so hard won. And, happily, the baby boy's mother had a
    completely healthy little girl, 11 months after his death. (Our daughters
    have become friends!)

    December 22, 2009 at 01:59 | Report abuse | Reply
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