The Truth About Survivor Guilt

According to a quote I love by Peter McWilliams, “guilt is anger directed at ourselves— at what we did or did not do.” As human beings, we are prone to at one point or another, feel responsible for a negative event that happened in our life, whether it was in or out of our control. We allow ourselves to be trapped in this area of “guilt”. However, what makes survivor guilt different and more dangerous? Why is it important for parents, caregivers, or loved ones to know the truth about survivor guilt? Below, I will share my own experience of guilt as a third degree burn survivor and how I have learned to let go of what I couldn’t control and LIVE the life I deserve.

-Huyen “Kiki” Vo

11/20/2000 Vietnam

It was probably around 7 o’clock. My younger sister Nhi (8 years old) and I were studying in the living room. As a kid, I was a bit mischievous. My mom had a shop where she sold homemade candies to the neighborhood kids to make extra money, a little hut out in front of our house. I remember persuading Nhi to go with me to get some candy from my mother’s small shop. As Nhi and I walked to the store, we ran into my baby sister (Thuong) who was only 3 years old back then. The two of them followed as I led them to the store. Unexpectedly, we ran into our mother, who was busy pouring gasoline into a small bottle. She does this to pour gas into my father’s motorcycle so he could drive to the local shop to purchase a portable electric bin that enabled my sisters and I to study at night. The village did not have electricity. The next moment happened so fast that even to this day, I still can’t believe it happened.

Nhi was holding a kerosene lamp and without knowing so, she leaned in and lowered the lamp to where my mother was pouring the gas. Just like that, the fire ignited. It was only a small fire at first but because we were so frightened by it, all three of us sisters ran back into the shop. Seeing her children inside the shop, my mother couldn’t bear to run out first. For the next minute or so, she covered us with her arms, telling us that it would be okay; Daddy would come and save us. The flaming fire kept blazing and heating up. We were stuck. I screamed. I couldn’t breathe. I was getting exhausted. I remember feeling my skin bubbling and peeling. I looked and saw my sisters desperately gasping for air. In that moment, I thought I was going to be trapped and die in that shop. Just when I was about to close my eyes and fall into that scary deep sleep, my father jumped through the fire and saved me. One by one, he ran in and out of that burning house and rescued my mother and sisters.

We survived but suffered tremendous burns. I remember hearing the screeching scream from my sisters. “đau quá, đau quá ba oi.” Nhi was rolling on the cement crying with such awful pain. That night our lives shattered forever. I remember being on the ambulance and glancing over to see my mother. In her eyes, I saw the immense pain she was in. She cried out for help to stop the awful pain. At that moment, I did not feel pain. All I felt was guilt. Guilty that because of wanting to get some candy, I led my sisters to the shop and caused the incident to happen. Tears of guilt were rolling down my face as I looked at my mother and uttered “Con xin loi, me” – I’m sorry Mom.

Those were my last words to my mother.

I will never forget that night and that fire. For the first few years after the accident, I was struggling emotionally with survivor guilt. I was very negative about life.

Negative thoughts and emotions:
  • I blamed myself for the incident and the reason why my mother passed away “Why did she die instead of me since I was the mischievous one?”
  • “What’s the point of living if she is no longer here? “ I refused to focus all my energy on recuperating and healing from my burn surgeries
  • “What if I didn’t lead my sisters to steal candies in the first place? Would she still be alive and I still have my whole happy family?”
  • “I should trade place with my mother so she could be alive to be with my younger sisters”
I wanted to know “WHY” even though it only led to further disappointment and regret. Eventually after several years of drowning myself with those thoughts, I found ways to refocus my energy on positive thinking instead.   Advice on overcoming feelings of survivor guilt:
  • Accept that your emotional reaction to the incident and/or a loss is normal.
Once you accepted this part, you will be able to start on your healing process. You will be able to grieve properly and understand that no one can ever explain the “what if” and “why” certain tragic things happened in life.  Whenever I catch myself feeling sad or guilty, I look back at my past accomplishments (academic, career, or personal growth) and give myself affirmations.  I would realize how far I have gone and know that I have potential to continue to succeed if I keep  a positive mindset.
  • Seek out friends, families, or counselors for emotional support and guidance.
It’s important to express your feeling in a safe environment that will encourage, nurture, and allow you to be 100% honest with your emotions. It is unsafe to hold back how you truly feel because it could lead to depression, anxiety or worst, self-destructive thoughts.  For me, I make a list of five “safe guard” people that keep me grounded and will make sure to give me a reality check when I’m in a depressive stage. I would have two adult mentors, a burn survivor friend, my two closest friends, and my sisters. I would call those people for support when I know I can’t handle my own emotions.  
  • Find positive outlets to process emotions
Besides turning to your “safe guard” people for emotional support, other outlets I found useful are dancing, exercising, and journaling. During my adolescent years, journaling allowed me to spill my negative thoughts on paper. I would journal about those thoughts then I would evaluate my own feelings. For me it was a good outlet to channel my negative thoughts and have my own internal check-in. In my 20s, I start exploring other outlets such as dancing and exercising. I soon found out the “perfect” outlet for me. It was dancing. Whenever I feel the wave of guilt surfacing, I would go out dancing. I would push my body to dance and through movements, I feel alive. I feel blessed knowing that despite being burned, I am still able to move my body. Thus, dancing saves my mind from wandering into negative zone and reminded me that I should focus on the beautiful moments and the fact that I’m alive to enjoy this magical life.  
  • Honor someone’s sacrifices for you by paying it forward.
Share your story with someone else that is going through the same situation. In the process of helping others heal, you are actually healing yourself just as much.  For me, I took every opportunity available to speak whether at burn conferences or workshops to share my testimony. I take on opportunity like this one to share my experience and hope that I can be a guiding light for someone else in need.
  • Focus on personal goals Give yourself a big goal so you are spending more time and effort looking forward to the possibilities of the future, not constantly consumed by the past and the things you can’t changed. I was fortunate to have grown up in a family very grounded in higher education. My father didn’t receive any education and therefore, wanted me to receive the best education as possible. Thus, since adolescent years until now, I focus a lot of my energy to furthering my education. For example, when I was in high school, I focused on getting into UC Berkeley for college. During my years at UC Berkeley, I gained knowledge and skills that helped shape my characters.  Whenever I feel depressed or sad, I would remember that I still have many big goals to accomplish and that I need to stay positive and on track. I need to do so for my future.
  • FORGIVE yourself and move on. Guilt stems from no rational basis; therefore, you have to forgive yourself in order to truly move on and live a happy life. For me, the first step was to realize that I was only a child when I led my sisters to my mother’s hut. I did not know better.

Final Thoughts: Ultimately, the key to overcoming survivor guilt is to understand the difference between what you can and cannot change. No matter how much I wish my mother was alive, she was meant to be on earth for a purpose: to sacrifice her life for her children. She did her duty and it was time for me to make peace with myself and let her go. I cannot control her destiny the same way you cannot control what meant to happen in your life. What you can control, however, is your present perspective and how you can best live a fulfilled life. Go out there and live that life you deserve! I know I am. One Love.

“God grant me the Serenity To accept things I cannot change Courage to Change the things I can and Wisdom to know the difference”

– Serenity Prayer

Written by: Kiki Vo

Kiki Vo is a young adult who was burn injured as a child in a fire that that claimed the life of her mother and injured her 2 sisters. She is a Cal graduate with a degree in Social Welfare and Education and has been involved with the Burn Community since high school

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