Guilt and Trauma

Healing & Meditation

An excerpt from Svagito’s just published book, When Life Stops: Trauma, Bonding and Family Constellation.

Meera with Svagito on beach in South Africa

People who survived a traumatic event, such as an accident or natural disaster while others did not, often experience a deep guilt that can stay with them long after the event. It is called ‘survivor guilt’ and there is dissent in scientific circles about how much this relates to actual guilt or to shame or to both.

But with any traumatic event it is likely that feelings of shame or guilt come up, particularly if we blame ourselves for what happened. The mind can revolve in endless circles about what we could or should have done differently and how we could have prevented what happened. Our response depends on whether our personality is more shame or more guilt based, and also on the specific kind of trauma we are facing. To various degrees a sense of guilt or self-blame can impair our ability to function.

It could be that a woman who has been abused believes that it was her own fault that the perpetrator was attracted to her. It could be that a holocaust survivor is tortured by thoughts about why it was he who survived and not his friend. It could be that after a car accident someone judges himself for not having paid more attention and responded more quickly to the car coming from the right. Or we may feel guilty for not completing a relationship with a loved one who died. Even in small situations, for example if we cannot find our car keys, there are people who blame themselves excessively for such details and one can imagine how much this negative attitude towards oneself may be multiplied in the case of a real traumatic event. Whether we respond with shame or guilt largely depends on early childhood hang-ups.

In my experience after Meera’s accident I felt much guilt on various levels. I felt so guilty that I had taken her to that holiday, that I did not take care for her more by double checking the dive cylinder or for not staying closer to her on that dive. I literally felt as if I killed her, that I was responsible for her accident and for not saving her life. It was a torturous feeling that returned to me many times for months to come. And nothing that came from my intellect or from other people’s comment could change how I felt inside.

My feeling of guilt could be triggered by almost anything. I felt terrible that I could not arrange a more beautiful celebration for her, that I could not manage to stay with her body all the time or prevent the autopsy of the doctor. I felt sorry for her and myself. How could the worst possible event happen in the worst possible place on earth? Why at such a moment and at such a place? I was all alone there with no support and everything was plain, primitive and not worthy for honouring my wife’s departure from this life.

I took responsibility for almost anything. I felt so utterly helpless and hopeless and alone as I never felt before in my entire life. And I just wanted to disappear with her. Why did this happen to her and not to me? I had literally guilt attacks that would come sometimes like a big wave, where I just wanted to hit my head against a wall. It seems to me that only the pure necessity of having to take care of practical matters forced me out of such states.

Looking back, I am still amazed how I managed to function and arrange for many things that even in a normal condition would be intense. I guess it was only possible because I was in an altered state with a high level of dissociation. The number of endorphins in my system allowed my intellect to function well enough to take practical decisions and not get overwhelmed by emotions. And the high adrenalin rush in my blood kept me going with almost no sleep and the periodical emotional outbursts allowed enough discharge of energy, so my system could release certain tensions. Also, I guess, my years of meditation and being with a Master helped me to remind myself and view death not as a calamity, even if on an emotional and biological level it was.

Over the coming month I practiced to just allow all my feelings, thoughts and sensations to happen without trying to do anything about them, not trying to control, postpone or make them less, but just letting happen whatever wanted to happen at any moment, not caring about what others may think when suddenly in a train or on the street my tears would start to flow and take over me. Maybe this helped me to slowly come out from the dissociated state.

Often our mind will find endless reasons why we are guilty or responsible in one way or another. We actually may have certain real responsibilities for something that happened or have really made mistakes in responding to a situation. We may discover later in what way we were not aware or present and therefore contributed to the event. But this is not the point. It is the overwhelming, uncontrollable sense of guilt or shame that can be so torturous. The mind continues in a compulsive way to repeat the same thoughts in a useless attempt to gain control and re-write the history of a past chain of events. It can be a combination of guilt and helplessness that is fuelled by hyper arousal, but can often leave a person in depression and without energy.

It is helpful to learn to acknowledge and accept such feelings as part of a response to trauma and find a way for the body to discharge its activation. Just as when dealing with other symptoms one needs to process the grief and pain and all other feelings with compassion and love. It also is important to develop a meditative awareness and an understanding that we are all part of a cosmic drama, in which we play a certain part and we are not in control of that.

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Svagito is a therapist, teacher and training leader. He was Meera’s partner for 25 years and is curating her legacy.

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