Have you ever experienced “Survivor’s Guilt?” Carol Kuykendall helps us move away from comparison in our griefs.
Don’t Compare. Share!
By Carol Kuykendall
Mid-morning on December 30, 2021, my husband Lynn and I saw a plume of smoke out of the window of our home. It was in the distance to the west, but quickly grew into a huge black cloud as it picked up speed, fueled by 100 mph winds, moving in our direction, out of control.
Within minutes our neighborhood was alerted to evacuate immediately. We barely had time to grab our computers, cell phones and our dog with only the thought of escaping. We joined a slow-moving caravan of cars, aware that we all shared a powerful common fear.
We went to my brother’s home miles away where, in stunned silence, we watched the television coverage of the wildfire exploding homes into flames in our familiar neighborhood. When the smoke began to clear early the next morning, we could see from a map of destruction that our house had survived. Our relief was short lived as we began to realize how many friends lost everything, a reality that seemed unimaginable. Suddenly, we who had evacuated together and shared the same fears were now divided into two categories: victims and survivors.
The Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Fueled by record-breaking winds, and fed by the parched fields, it destroyed more than 1,000 homes and burned more than 1,600 acres in a matter of hours. It was horrific.
My relief at learning that our home had survived the fire quickly became survivor’s guilt.
I identified with a conversation I overheard:
“Did your house survive?’
“I’m glad you’re OK.”
“You asked if my house survived. Yes, it did. But I am not OK.”
I wasn’t OK either. And felt guilty for feeling bad. So many friends lost not only their homes but all their irreplaceable treasures. And all that the word “home” embodies.
I called a dear friend who was devastated by the loss of the home she had lived in and loved for 16 years. It was now a pile of ashes, a reality hard to believe. She said she woke up in the middle of the night, feeling so sad. Her husband asked what he could do for her.
“Take me home,” she said simply.
I sat on my couch, wrapped up in a soft comfy blanket I’d purchased a couple days after the fire because it looked like it would give me comfort in my sadness. I pulled it tighter around me as I compared my comfortable home to her pile of ashes. How can I encourage her when I’ve survived what she is suffering? She probably thinks I can’t possibly understand what she feels. Survivor’s guilt can get in the way of relationships when we most need each other.
I remember experiencing survivor’s guilt years ago when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer and given a two-year life expectancy. When I passed the three, four and five-year mark cancer free, I got phone calls from ovarian cancer victims who wanted to hear my story. How had I survived? I had no great answers and when I compared my good health to their recurring difficulties, my guilt got in the way of sharing.
I confessed my guilt to one cancer victim who was continually battling recurrences. “You survived. I may not,” she told me. “But you help me live with hope.”
Comparing our losses is common and tempting but comparisons turn our feelings into a competition which separates us rather than connects us.
“Don’t compare. Share!” became my motto.
I had an idea as I sat there on the couch that day. I’d get my friend a soft blanket like mine. So I did and invited her to stop by, which she did. I showed her my blanket and how I wrapped up in it because it comforted me when I felt sad. “I got you one just like it and filled it with my prayers, hoping it will comfort you.”
A couple of days later, I got this text message from her: “Last night I couldn’t sleep again, so I got up and wrapped myself tightly in the comfort blanket you gave me, a bit like swaddling a baby. It calmed me. Thank you for taking care of me and knowing what I needed before I did.”
“Don’t compare. Share!” has become my motto once again as victims and survivors continue to heal in the aftermath of the fire. As I daily drive through the burned-black neighborhood, I’m reminded that the victims face years of struggles—living in temporary housing, dealing with insurance settlements and decisions about whether to rebuild.
What can I do? Share their sufferings by listening with empathy, validating their feelings, and offering resources, sometimes as simple as a comfy blanket.
Carol Kuykendall is the author and co-author of numerous books, including Give Them Wings. Carol writes for Guideposts and Daily Guideposts and has been a guest on Focus on the Family radio broadcast. She's worked for MOPS International, writing and speaking, and continues to be a popular seminar speaker. She and her husband Lynn are parents of three grown children and live in Boulder, near their extended family which includes 10 grandchildren. Learn more at carolkuykendall.com.