Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt. I said I’d write about it in my last post. Up until a couple of years ago, I did not even know what survivor’s guilt was. My friend, JJ,  from the last post explained it to me. She felt survivor’s guilt. Why did she get to live, and other folks with cancer did not?

When I entered the cancer world, I was introduced to more people who have cancer. I met them in the waiting room at the imaging center, I sat next to them at the lab. I overheard their conversations at dinner at that nice Italian place close to UCSF. People who I didn’t even know contacted me via email because their daughter, or their spouse, has the same kind of cancer as Jim had. I called on others, because I wanted a glimpse into our short future. Cancer is scary. It carries a crappy prognosis in many cases. It kills people too young. Sometimes you can tie it to a cause….but most often it is just random. Cancer isn’t fair…it just is.  Still, I think it is human nature to barter with it or feel guilt. Why couldn’t it have been my life and not Jim’s? I can’t teach my kids to row class 4, or how to ride a switch back. I am not a public school teacher, nor do I build trail. Why does the guy, smoking a cigarette, walking down the street, get to meet his grandchildren, and Jim never will? When my sister died, my step mom was heart-broken. “Why couldn’t it have been me? I’ve done everything I really wanted to do in my life, and hers was just starting.” Even Jim stated, “I would give up everything (meaning all his gear, toys, the house, the truck), all of it except the people and the dog, for one thing.” Bartering and survivor’s guilt. I guess they are normal human responses. Bartering does no good. But what about guilt?

I am no stranger to guilt. I am female, and I grew up in the midwest. I was not raised Catholic…that would have been a triple whammy. I exist, therefore I feel guilt. Doesn’t take much. I feel guilty that I enjoyed the first truly nice weekend of Spring mountain biking in Montana when I should have been home doing yard work. I feel guilty that Jasper is left to fend for himself for a weekend, while I travel to Missoula. I feel guilty that I can’t seem to leave enough time in the morning to ride my bike to swimming rather than taking my car. I feel guilty that I use plastic liners in my trash cans, and that I choose not to afford organic milk for my growing son. I feel guilty when I blow off time with my mom to spend time with my friends, and I feel guilty when I blow off my friends to spend time with my mom. I feel guilty that I will never be able to repay the universe for all the support our family got when Jim was sick, dying, and when I was newly widowed. I feel guilty that I can seem to find time to write a blog post, but can’t find the time to get Jasper’s graduation announcements out. I feel guilty when I commit to a group, or a project, and then can’t make all the meetings.  A life of trade offs is a life of guilt for the option not chosen. Mostly, I feel guilt that I cannot be both a mother and a father for my children.

Guilt is a negative emotion. It would be easy to just blow it off, ignore it, and state that life is too short to feel guilty. Jim did not engage in much guilt. He was male, grew up in the West. He was raised Catholic…which gave him just enough guilt to keep him honest. He never could lie. Still….his normal response was righteous indignation, whereas when things were not right with the world, I assumed it was all my fault. Guilt. What purpose does it serve? I think guilt makes me squirm. It is uncomfortable. It pushes me to act. I look at my work schedule and find a hole where I can get my grass cut, and then invite my mom to bring her tools by for sharpening. I feed my son dinner on a night where I already have another dinner plan…just to share that time with him, and let him know, via good homemade food, that I think he is important. I hassle him about summer jobs and graduation plans…and ignore the fact that 3 days of dishes went undone. I commit to riding my bike to the pool in the summer, when we start 15 minutes later, and the route to the outdoor pool is flat. I leave house work and yard work undone in favor of completing a volunteer commitment to somehow pay a small part back into this community that has held my family. I leave John at home the morning after he gets here so that I can attend a Friday morning group on the weekends that he and I are in Moscow. Guilt, because it is yucky, forces me to act.

Survivor’s guilt is that feeling I get when I realize that there is nothing I can do, no action that I can take to make the bad feeling go away. People die from cancer. I got to live, and Jim did not. He left holes that can’t be filled. I will never be able to be both mother and father to my kids. I can’t replace Jim. I’ll never think that class V whitewater sounds fun. I can’t organize a weekend trip 3 weeks in advance. I’ll bow to others expertise in avalanche terrain, and the thought of teaching Junior High terrifies me. I can only be a mom. Survivor’s guilt is futile….but regular guilt makes me keep trying to be the best mom I know how to be….knowing that it will never be quite enough, but it is all that I have.

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One Response to Survivor’s Guilt

  1. jj says:

    Sigh…it doesn’t ever quite fade, but it does come into perspective.That’s all I know.

    (survivor’s guilt, that is…regular guilt *never* fades, at least not the Judeo-Catholic kind wherein you feel guilty for things that happened before you born…ugh!)

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