How do people in recovery handle ‘survivor’s guilt’?

Question: How do people in recovery handle the death of so many friends? My son says he carries a lot of survivor’s guilt. Is this common?

Many of us have a hard time openly expressing our struggles with grief. Whether because of shame, guilt, or simply difficult moments, we have felt unworthy of recovery. Unfortunately, most others have little to no experience understanding the secondary trauma we are challenged by. When we eventually decide to discuss the impact of losing so many friends to overdoses, we are commonly faced with gaslight responses. Responses like “makes you grateful for your recovery” or “that’s what happens when you don’t put your recovery first” deny us our opportunity to process and heal. Yes, we know that’s what happens when we don’t put our recovery first, and yes, we are grateful for our recovery, but that doesn’t take away our feelings of emptiness and trauma. Every overdose is a person who has battled the same demons I’ve battled. We are connected for eternity. 

The continuous overdoses have an impact on everyone. Most of us have been to more funerals, wakes, and celebrations of life than we have births, weddings, graduations, and even sobriety celebrations. The grief can become overbearing and suffocating to the point of a relapse. I’ve personally learned throughout the years that sitting down and talking about my grief is not conducive. Instead, I choose to keep alive the memories I have of those I’ve lost. I have found that sharing what their life has taught me is most effective and therapeutic. I personally can no longer pay my respects at a wake or funerals, but I have learned my respects come from how I choose to remember the person, which is full of life, and at their happiest and healthiest. As a person who has lived experience and who works in this field, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that most of my grief stems from regret. I regret not being able to help, regret not being available the way I should have been, regret not telling the person what they meant to me in the moment. Most importantly, I regret allowing my expectations to place a barrier between me and the person who is struggling.

We all live in some way or another with survivor’s guilt and regret. Because we never know how long we have with people, I’ve learned to love a person exactly as they are. To ask someone if they are okay right in the moment, when they appear to be struggling. To tell someone how much they mean to me right in the moment, and to never take a life for granted.

Listed below are some grief and bereavement support websites:

Yours truly,

Keriann Caccavaro
A Daughter’s Perspective

Disclaimer: The above advice is not meant to be construed as medical or legal advice. If you need professional medical, psychological, or legal advice, please contact a doctor, lawyer, or medical center.

Keriann Caccavaro is a recovery coach, drug court advocate, and woman in long term recovery helping to support people struggling with addiction and their families. You can learn more about her on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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