Recently, I went to a wake for a friend’s husband who had died too young of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer like I had. But unlike my leukemia, his turned out to be incurable.
We’d been dealing with cancer for roughly the same 10-year period, with treatment going on and off. My friend and I had often exchanged updates on how I was doing, and gotten news about how her husband’s disease was doing. For a while the answer was “okay.” But in recent months the tone had changed and her words were “not so good.”
When the time came for the wake, I hesitated.
As an excuse, I told the friend who had arranged to pick me up that my daughter was home from school.
“So is mine,” she replied. She also explained that Annie, the widow, needed our support.
I went to the wake, of course, and later when I thought about it, I realized that my reluctance wasn’t just the normal feeling that such an occasion would be sad. Two words rose to the surface: survivor guilt.
The first question that crosses your mind when you get cancer is, “Why me?”
But at that wake, the question was turned on its head: “Why not me?”
Survivor guilt has been illustrated in Holocaust survivors, war veterans, rescue workers, cancer survivors, those who escaped a mass killing, and even workers who have been laid off — anyone who has been involved in a life-threatening or life-altering event.
I thought that maybe my friend would not want to see me, that my presence would be a recrimination.
Experts advise that the best way to deal with survivor guilt is to acknowledge the problem and talk about it. If it becomes debilitating, it should be discussed with a therapist.
And you also have to understand that just as it is not your fault you got cancer, it is not your fault that you survived it.
I didn’t talk to anyone about it, having realized what it was after the fact.
But I did know that I had to push through rather than hide at home, because that’s part of dealing with it also.
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