survivor guilt

I am a little uncomfortable with calling myself an "earthquake survivor". When I got back from Haiti, I had my little 15 minutes of fame as all the local news channels clamored to get an interview with the "local Orange County woman who survived the earthquake". It all seemed very overdramatic to me - but I realize (sadly) that people tend to be more interested in a story about someone they identify with. I did the interviews, most of them on my first full day home, because I wanted to use the attention to talk about humanitarian parole. As I saw the stories later, I chuckled at the little liberties they took to make it sound more dramatic, and I rolled my eyes at the descriptor of "earthquake survivor". It doesn't seem a fitting title for someone who doesn't even live in Haiti, for someone who came out unscathed, from someone who took a plane home to a normal life and an intact home.

At the same time, my feelings about the earthquake have been extremely intense. My first month home, I spent hours glued to the television, watching the footage of the devastation in Haiti. If I wasn't watching tv, I was reading stories online. I saw statistics that 1 in 13 people in Port-Au-Prince died that day. And the more I saw of the far-reaching effects of this earthquake, the more unglued I became.

I think we have all struggled with the "why" questions of this disaster. Why Haiti? Why so much loss? Why so much sorrow? Why to a people who have already struggled so much?

In my darker moments - and these have been frequent - I have also struggled with the injustices of survival. Why did I survive this earthquake? Why was I in a structurally sound building? Why did I not struggle with finding food or water in the following days? Why did I get to drive to an embassy and be flown away from the rattling aftershocks? Why did I get to arrive home to balloons and family and friends, while others were still missing loved ones and fighting to survive?





The answer to all of those questions - the irrefutable, undeniable answer - is privilege.

It's not because I am a better person, or have more of God's favor, or because I was more resourceful or more resilient than anyone else. Not by a longshot. Suggestions that God was protecting me . . . those make my stomach churn. Was he not protecting them? All 230,000 of them?

During the last two months, I have watched the news from Haiti in complete horror. I know that we all have - and I've struggled to figure out what a healthy reaction to devastation should be. Is there such a thing? I'm not sure . . . but I know that my thoughts and feelings were frequently not healthy. They have been obsessive and morbid and self-punishing. My fixation was motivated by terror and guilt instead of compassion. I was regularly having panic attacks watching CNN . . . and yet I couldn't not watch.

And then Kembe came home. This should have been a joyous occasion. In many ways, it was. But there was this gnawing realization that his early homecoming was a result of this awful tragedy. How do I celebrate that? Two weeks prior to his homecoming, I sat in a hotel room in Orlando with other adoptive moms, all of us lamenting and commiserating about the length of our adoption process. Never in our wildest dreams would we imagine that our kids would come home in such a short time, AT THE SAME TIME, on the same plane. If someone told us that then, we would have jumped for joy. Instead, their homecoming was somber and stressful. When people have talked about his early homecoming as an answered prayer, I wince.

Of course I am thrilled he is home, but the circumstances have made for a rocky start. For him, for me, for all of us.

I finally saw my doctor a few weeks ago, to talk about my anxiety since the earthquake. As he questioned me to try to get to the source of my anxiety, he asked about what was going on in my life personally that was so troubling. Some current stressors? Something tangible?

And as I sobbed in his office, all I manage to blurt out was that I couldn't fathom the amount of dead people lying under concrete. And thrown in mass graves. And so many amputees. And people living in tents. And still feeling aftershocks. And HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO JUST GO ON WITH MY LIFE WHEN THIS IS A REALITY IN OUR WORLD?

And really. How am I? (Apparently with a generous bottle of Ativan).

I went to church last Sunday for the first time since the earthquake. For me, this is often a space where I can finally get in touch with the spiritual issues that I suppress as I try to keep up with my kids. As the worship songs played over me, I was overcome with emotion for the people of Haiti - for their grief, their pain, their unspeakable sorrow.

I am not a survivor, in their sense of the word. But I feel a connection to their grief in a way that is making it difficult for me to experience any joy right now. I am still trying to figure out how to go on with my life here, as they continue to struggle there. It's a helpless feeling, this survivor guilt.

19 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:24 AM

    i will not even pretend to try and understand what you are going through...but i feel like today's post could not be read without leaving a response. i'm not sure exactly how to respond, however. so please just know i am thinking of you today (and everyday as i read your blog).

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  2. Anonymous6:34 AM

    You are in my thoughts.

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  3. The Haiti earthquake shook me in a way I never could have imagined. As a rather new mother of African American adopted children I saw the faces of the children and easily imagined that they could be my children. And in a weird way all those children did become my children. I was glued to the tv, internet...so distraught over the struggle in Haiti. It all brought me to Amos's story, which brought me to yours, then Ronels. And I checked the blogs several times a day, obsessively until they all made it home. And in all of that I found more from you three amazing women. And it has made me question my life and my purpose...what is my purpose? What is your purpose?
    Nothing has seemed the same for you since Haiti, I cannot imagine...
    In a way, nothing has seemed the same for me either. And on a small scale I get that, I get what you are feeling (again, on a much smaller scale).
    What do we do with it? How do we all get together and do something, become something that will make a difference and make us realize our purpose?

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  4. Wow, Kristen! Thanks for such honesty! I can't begin to fathom what you're going through and even more so, what our brothers and sisters in Haiti are going through!!

    Kinda confirms that whole "God Bless America" thing to be complete bull#&@*! What about the rest of the world??? Does God not want to bless them too? Do WE not want God to bless them???

    I think the point you make about privilege is right on!! Our "blessings" are definitely a result of the privilege we were born into living in the most powerful country on earth! Lord knows, we don't deserve it any more than other countries/people around the globe!!

    I can't help but think of the Sermon on the Mount... according to Jesus, the people in Haiti and others suffering around the world will indeed be the ones he calls BLESSED!!

    I can't wait to be in heaven where we'll get to see the "last" here be "FIRST" there, while we hang out in the back of the line together!! :)

    We love your precious family!! Thanks for calling it how it is!!

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  5. Nancy Howerton7:46 AM

    Kristen--thanks for putting into words so much of what I too have been feeling. I'm bawling even now as I write this. I keep wondering where my joy and peace have gone. I feel sometimes like I have become an angry and bitter person, in so much pain, and yet not knowing what to do about it. How dare I live in this beautiful house, place, have clean water, take showers whenever, instead of worrying about where my next meal will come from, I am worrying about losing a few more pounds. And so much more--but I'm sure even more painful for you who saw the devastation first hand. As I wear my Pray for Haiti bracelet, I look at it dozens of times a day and continue to lift up my prayers. . . what more can we do?

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  6. I cannot fathom what you're going through, but I do believe talking about it like this will help you through it.

    Thank you as always for your unflinching honesty. and especially for this: "Suggestions that God was protecting me . . . those make my stomach churn. Was he not protecting them? All 230,000 of them?" Questioning our privilege is definitely a good thing.

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  7. Lisa Keck9:04 AM

    Dear Kristen,
    That was brutally honest and I thank you. I read somewhere in a book on grieving that "you don't get over it. You work though it." I believe this is what you are doing. I think I too saw the earthquake as a way to speed up the adoption process and I'm sorry. I believe it was natural disaster and God didn't cause it but that He used it. You've been through a traumatic experience but I believe you are on the journey back to joy. One step, one prayer, one tear at a time.

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  8. Just keep on writing okay?? Keep on being honest and authentic and uncensored. Because everytime I land here I have an emotional connection. Sometimes it's laughter, sometimes it's shared anger and indignance at a world whose priorities I don't understand, sometimes it's tears because I identify with your heart. Sappy? Maybe. BUT...in your truth and your confession and your sharing...you are enlightening, empowering and encouraging. Keep keepin' on girl. You have a purpose. Thinking of you today...

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  9. Anonymous12:35 PM

    Thanks for sharing something so gut wrenching, personal and difficult. It made me think of 9/11 and some of the survivor guilt stories I heard when I went there afterward. Your message also made me think of the book I'm reading right now by Phillip Yancey called "Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?" You should read it (as if you have time). What is happening does seem unfair and doesn't make sense and yet, thank goodness we know that ultimately, God will bring justice to this world and win. I wish it would happen sooner rather than later. What you're feeling totally makes sense and your message was a good reminder of the hurt you and so many others here and in Haiti are experiencing. Yes, your writing lately has had more bitterness behind your compassion but your anger is completely understandable. So don't stop writing and sharing all of your experiences because God has and will continue to use your words to encourage others. For whatever reason we have been given much in the US and with that comes great responsibility. Too many people are taking this responsibility lightly so hopefully your words will challenge others to step out and do something.

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  10. Anonymous12:40 PM

    Your transparency and heart is what will get you through all of what you heard, saw and feel today. Keep talking, keep moving, keep loving your kids and your HUSBAND.

    I have learned one thing from my "Coach" stay in the moment...he continues to remind me that is all I can do at times when I am overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. Please be patient with yourself, it all takes time...you have seen life, death and hunger of young and old. Keep moving and breathing and loving...your honesty is so raw and pure, thank you for sharing that part of yourself with us!

    You are a wonderful women who is loved by so many, try to take that in and rest if only for a moment. Love from Anonymous

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  11. Tamara3:14 PM

    I'm with Tanya who said that you simply need to keep writing. Through your blogs, which took me to the Livesays, I have become aware of Haiti in a way I never would have. You've educated me, enlightened me, brought to the surface some longheld thoughts I had buried. For the first time in 40 years I have considered religion as I never have before. I'm not a Christian but I'm fascinated with the comfort and complete surrender that so many readers feel through their relationship with Jesus.

    I've lived in and traveled to oppressed (socially and economically) parts of the world and always came home heavy with guilt. As others have said, my biggest fortune in life was to have been born in the USA. There's actually no failing, comparatively speaking, if you just so happened to have been born here. That's a big thing. One day my mom allayed some of that guilt when she told me I couldn't carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, but that I could do my best to work toward—get ready—social justice in my community and in the world. So that's what I do.

    Thanks for keeping it real and sharing your life with us.

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  12. Anonymous3:44 PM

    Kristen! How do you do that? How do you ask the same questions that I ask? Thank you for asking them, I wish I had some answers for you or something to bring you peace. And honey, it's okay to take some joy for yourself out of the awful things that have happened, you being happy doesn't make anything less terrible -- being unaware and unwilling to help makes things worse -- which is where people would be w/o blogs like yours and the Livesays.

    I've never even been to Haiti and I felt some "survivor's guilt" too. Not anything like yours I'm sure and also not coupled with actually experiencing the earthquake, but the bottom line is that we do what we can, from where we are, not forgetting to take care of ourselves and family, too. And remember, your suffering doesn't ease anyone else's suffering. We are privileged here and we do have lots of choices and comforts, and sometimes that's hard to stomach, but it's not your fault anymore than those who were born into a 3rd world country (or into a poor household here or an abusive home).

    You will get through this, you are a strong woman...and I know that sometimes it sucks to be strong, but the only way to the other side is through it and you'll make it.

    Take your ativan to help you cope (it's helped me tremendously)and start smiling again and take all 4 of the kiddo's on the bike path to the beach and talk about Haiti and blog about your experiences.
    We're the lucky one's here -- we get you sharing your life with us, asking hard questions and getting us to have conversations that we otherwise may never would have had.
    Thanks for being you and keepin' it real. I'm so sorry that you've had to go through this and that Kembe was brought home under less than ideal circumstances. But it is what it is. And maybe, one day, you won't think about how you had it planned in your head -- and that's okay. It's okay to grieve the loss of what you had planned or what you hoped things would be, but keep living, b/c it will get better.

    Jill

    P.S. If there is something specific that we can do to help Haiti (or the adoption) you'll let us know, right? Thanks.

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  13. When we got our daughter's referral from Ethiopia, it was one of the best and worst days of my life. Best: well that is obvious. We finally got to see the face of our daughter. Worst: We finally HAD to put names and faces and details to the tragedy that occurred in a tiny village in Africa. How could we be so joyful when our joy came from the pain of so many others? Our trip to bring her home was filled with so much joy, but also sorrow. I was ruined by what I saw, forever changed.

    I can't begin to comprehend what you experienced because our journey didn't involve any natural disasters. However, I get, even in a very small quantity, that it is so hard to celebrate when others are experiencing such hardship.

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  14. Suzy D'Souza4:20 PM

    Your post overwhelmed me and I did not even experience what you did. I feel tempted to write some sort of platitude about God, and how He will see you through it and someday it will all make sense and blah blah blah. The fact is, what happened to you as compared to 230,000 other people in Haiti will likely never make sense. For me, that is one of the most difficult realities to accept--that some things in life will never be given sense. There is an odd kind of peace that has set in, for me, when I have accepted the nonsensical nature of different tragic events in my own life. Perhaps you will, at some point, experience that too.

    Your post helped me understand many of the guilty feelings I experience because of what I do and where I work. I teach inner-city children with Emotional Disturbance in South L.A. Every single one of them has a nightmarish aspect, or aspects, to their 10 year old lives. None of them come from an intact, healthy family. None. They all live in poverty. Hence, they have developed behaviors that placed the label of "Emotionally Disturbed" on them. Abuse has been an aspect of ALL my students lives, as well as many other types of horrendous things no child should have any exposure to. These children are societies throw away kids, the kids that most people would deem "too far gone". I beg to differ.

    I, in contrast, grew up in Irvine, California. I had an intact family. I had two loving parents who made sure I got an education and going to college was expected. My family definitely had their problems, though. However, my childhood was heaven compared to the hell my students live in. I drive 44 miles one way to South L.A. from perfect Rancho Santa Margarita where I live in a nice four bedroom home with my kind and gentle and decent husband. My life is heaven and I leave that life to enter into the hell of my students lives Monday through Friday.

    I feel a tremendous amount of guilt and confusion as to why my students experience this kind of injustice. I feel significant amounts of anger and resentment toward people who are not interested in Social Justice and do not see it as a charge from Jesus. I get that we live in a fallen world and all that. But, the reality is, my life turned out the way it did because I just happened to be born to two really good parents. My students were born into shit. Why? I ask myself that all the time. I feel the guilt every day. I feel confused about it every day. I feel the anger toward those who do not see the need for Social Justice. And I don't know how to undo the guilt and confusion and anger I feel for the lives that my students have no power to change, at least while they are still children.

    I thank you for writing down your experiences and feelings of guilt. It has helped me start to sort out the mess of feelings I have.

    I pray you can have peace...

    -Suzy

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  15. The God of the Bible is the Lord and Creator of all. There is nothing in this world over God and nothing that is outside of His control. It is His personal will that rules all, not an impersonal set of natural causes or random chance. Nature is under His complete control. He brings about all through His holy will.

    What does that mean? He allowed the earthquake to happen. He allowed you and your family to be saved. He chose to have you live where you live, marry who you married, and adopt from Haiti... and be there during the earthquake. God is in complete control of everything that happens... everything. That being said, we may not ever, this side of heaven, understand WHY He allows certain things to happen. Yet, we can trust Him and rest assured that He has His reasons. Consider the following Scriptures:

    Romans 9:14-18 (New International Version)
    14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses,"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth."18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    Isaiah 45:5-7 (New International Version)
    5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me,
    6 so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other.
    7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

    Matthew 10:29-30 (New International Version)
    29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

    Psalm 103:19 (New International Version)
    19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven, 
 and his kingdom rules over all.

    Romans 8:28-38 (New International Version)
    More Than Conquerors
    28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
    31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: 
 "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

    You were saved for a reason. You may not understand it. You may feel guilty about it. But you have to understand, on some level, that God chose you for this time. Just saturate yourself in His mercy; praise Him with gratitude.

    Tragedy forever changes the heart.

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  16. Hi Kristen,
    you post was rolling around last night in my head.

    It seems to me, sometimes we are given a chance to see a reality that is normally hidden from us. When we, who are living with "rich person privilege" (i just made that up), can see for a moment what the majority of the world doesn't have, that we do have, and often even take for granted - even those of us who try to live simply - it's really too much to bear. It doesn't make sense. It's not fair.

    And, I'll speak for myself here, it seems to demand more from me. More than what I'm doing, more than what I'm giving. And frankly, I usually back away from that, because I don't know what to do, or how to even start. I don't think there are easy answers, and I don't think my answers work for you (because it's a lot easier to give someone else answers than to start changing my own life).

    And then there is that whole idea about God having no hands but our hands to do his work in the world. Pretty terrifying stuff!

    I don't think our guilt helps anyone, or changes anything. But maybe it is a helpful first step - towards changing us...?

    Rhonda

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  17. Anonymous12:43 PM

    Rhonda's post expresses many of my sentiments. It's easy for Satan to get at us and keep us focused on beating ourselves up with guilt for what we have that others do not. That's not what God wants for us. God has said there will always be poor among us. God gives us blessings so we can give blessings to others. God does not care more for some than others; all are equally important to Him. He does, though, use circumstances caused by the sin brought into the world to bring glory to Him when His people pour out help to those who are suffering. I like what Rhonda said about God having no hands but our hands. Certainly God can miraculously reach down and change things; however, more often He uses us. But if we help others only out of a sense of guilt, or duty, are we really accomplishing what God wants from us? We need to accept guilt feelings when we have done wrong; Satan would give us false feelings of guilt to consume us and to keep us immobile. There will always be an inequality of wealth. There always has been and there always will be. God blesses those He chooses to bless and who are we to question that? Our responsibility is to use what he blesses us with to help others who are not. In this way, we have the opportunity to help them know the love of God. Is not that what we are here for as Christians...to know God and make Him known? We are called to reach out to those less fortunate out of response to the love God has shown to us and our love for Him. Yes, it hurts to see pain in the world. It hurts to see innocent children torn apart...it happens everywhere, not just Haiti, or Ethiopia, or Zimbabwe, or Chili, or any other thousands of countries. We, individually, cannot be everywhere, but we CAN be where God calls us to be at any given moment. God has a plan for each and every one of us. It is our job to listen to where God is and where God wants us to be, and what He wants us to do.

    Kristen, I've thought about this a lot over the past few weeks. It seems to me that God has given you a heart, a passion, and a platform to educate others on how they can be blessings to others, both through adoption, and supporting the 'good' relief organizations. There are so many relief organizations out there that are not doing what they should. You have opened many of our eyes to what UNICEF is REALLY doing. I had no idea. Use your platform...the internet is such a great way of getting information out.

    Another area is in cultural differences and how it is important to be open and understanding to the various differences in culture, not to be blind and pretend it does not exist. I wish you could have taught the course I had last spring on Counseling and Cultural Diversity. It is such an important thing that so many of us do not think of.

    Focus on what you CAN do; use that "rage" and focus it on what God wants you to do, not on the fact that you have things so many do not. God has given you what you have for a reason; don't question that, but ask Him to show you the reason he blessed you so you can bless others. You have been doing that in opening your heart and home through adoption. Continue to be open and He will give you the desires of your heart when your heart is focused on desiring His will.

    Love you,

    Beth

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  18. Anonymous3:11 PM

    oh, sweety. my heart bleeds for you as it does for the Haitian people. i'm married to a Haitian man from Port-au-Prince. since he was already an orphan, he didn't have much extended family to lose in the quake, and those few who remain have survived so far. we are living in the Dominican Republic, and serve the Haitians who live here with a free school for the children, and a feeding program. our vision is to open an orphanage one day. although we don't live in any kind of upscale house, it is still more than our friends have. even though we don't eat fancy, we eat better than our friends. we have running water (sometimes) and electricity (again,sometimes!) my heart aches to make a difference daily, but what more can i do? we don't really have a choice - we just keep waking up each day and have to go on. you are making a difference. you have beautiful children to raise to see the world with fresh, loving, unbiased eyes. God will heal your broken heart, and one day you won't need the ativan. hang in there.
    Sheila

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talk to me.

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