5 Steps I Am Taking to Overcome Harvey Survivor’s Guilt

When Hurricane Harvey hit, I thought for sure our house was going to flood. I bought sandbags, moved valuables upstairs, packed our bags, and evacuated with my little ones. Miraculously, our house didn’t flood, and I felt a huge relief. But I also felt something I didn’t expect – GUILT.

Feeling guilty that we stayed dry while over 100,000 of our neighbors didn’t

My home should have flooded. It sits on a 500-year flood plain, and Harvey was an 800-year storm. There’s a creek behind our yard that always floods during heavy rain. The water levels rose dramatically overnight when Harvey hit hard. So whenever a friend asked how we were doing and if we stayed dry, I felt guilty saying that, yes, we stayed dry. Especially when thousands and thousands of homes flooded that weren’t even in flood zones. Within a ten minute drive I can go to homes that flooded to the ceiling. Yes, I feel guilty that I survived Harvey with no damage while seemingly everyone around us didn’t. Some of my friends share the same feelings of guilt. Harvey Survivor Guilt.

According to E4Health, Survivor Guilt is a feeling some people get after a traumatic event. They feel guilty for having survived while many others didn’t. It is actually considered a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Harvey only killed about 45 people, but it also took away the homes and possessions of over 100,000 people. Over 500,000 cars were destroyed. Think of all those people who essentially have to rebuild their lives. Watching the news and seeing the pictures of devastation just makes me feel worse. Yet I can’t seem to stop myself from watching and reading and searching for news about Harvey. Apparently this obsession and preoccupation is a symptom of Survivor Guilt.

I can’t seem to focus on anything else. All I can think about is how I can help the Harvey victims. Since I was spared, it must be my responsibility to help the hundreds of thousands in need, right? So my family organized a food drive, we donated and volunteered, and on and on. Yes, we have been helping a lot of people and feeling good about what we’ve been able to do. But then I got sick. And exhausted. And I had a realization. This Harvey Survivor’s Guilt, and this crazy, unreasonable weight of responsibility I feel need to go. For my sake, for my family’s sake.

These are the steps I am taking to overcome my Survivor Guilt:

1. Acknowledge your feelings.

Writing this post is helping me to acknowledge how I feel, so I can recognize that these feelings of guilt are normal and that I can learn how to overcome my guilt. You could also write in a journal or talk to a friend about it. Talking about it with friends has helped me to see that I’m not alone, that they are having the same feelings of guilt and responsibility.

2. Recognize God’s hand in all things.

As a Christian, I believe that things happen for a reason. I don’t believe I’m better or worse than those who suffered loss, but I believe that God has a purpose behind all things. I don’t know why He spared our family from loss; maybe it was because He knew I would go crazy with anxiety and stress. Or maybe it was so we could be in a position to help others. Whatever the reason, it was God’s will. I shouldn’t feel guilty that we were spared.

3. Transform your guilt to GRATITUDE.

Instead of feeling guilty, I can feel grateful that we suffered no loss. I can feel grateful that my family is safe. I can feel grateful that we have the opportunity to help our neighbors in need. I can feel grateful that God is in charge and will take care of each of us.

4. Find BALANCE.

Remember the oxygen mask analogy

This is a huge issue for me, and what caused me to get sick. When there’s an emergency on an airplane, you’re supposed to put your own mask on first, then help your family, and then you can help others.

What did I do instead, after Harvey? I pigged out on junk food, stayed up late mesmerized by the news, and dumped my regular exercise routine. What will I commit to do, starting today?

I will go back to eating whole foods, fruits and veggies. I will stop eating the stale Milk Duds from the freezer. I will go to bed by 10:00. I will start exercising tomorrow. We feel guilty taking time for ourselves. But the reality is, you need to take care of yourself and your health first. Don’t feel guilty for taking care of your own needs. And not just physical needs; remember you have spiritual, emotional, and social needs too.

Once your own needs are met, take care of your family’s needs. Play Chutes and Ladders with them. Take them to the park. Do your laundry and sweep the floor. Go on a date with your spouse. Don’t feel guilty for doing these things. Your family needs you.

After you make sure you and your family are taken care of, if you still have the ability to, you can reach out to help others.

5. Make a volunteer plan.

Before signing up for every volunteer opportunity, it’s wise to stop and think {and pray} about where you can serve the best. I love the bee analogy. One bee only produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. But thousands and thousands of bees doing their part produce enough honey for all of us to eat. We can’t get overwhelmed with all the work there is to do, in helping Harvey victims. If we each do our part, we will get the work done. Last year with the flooding in Louisiana, over 6,500 volunteers joined Mormon Helping Hands in disaster recovery, and I’m sure there were thousands more from other relief organizations. We are among THOUSANDS of volunteers. If I can’t muck out houses every day, I shouldn’t feel bad. Maybe one morning of sorting donations is all I can do this week. I need to be wise and be grateful for what I can do.

Just like we’re not all doctors or all master chefs, we each have our own strengths and abilities. We can focus on those strengths in figuring out where and how to serve. One volunteer may not have been able to muck out houses, but she made cookies for those who did go mucking. A neighbor donated a bag of toiletries to the food bank. Someone else made hygiene kits. Maybe all you can do right now is pray for the Harvey victims. We can’t do it all, but we can each do something.

Let’s not do it in the spirit of survivor’s guilt, but of GRATITUDE for this humbling opportunity to help our neighbors in need.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for addressing this reality. I have been experiencing this guilt and worry. And now that recovery efforts are being made, I find myself feeling even more guilty for not getting out there with the work crews. I know my limitations and I’m unable to do that type of physical work and still be able to work my night job. Just saying that makes me feel like a whiner, an excuse maker. When in reality, I’m just trying to keep my priorities straight. I’d love to be that guy people call on for help. Instead I’m the guy people call to check on. I tell myself Im helping by not needing help. Odd as this may sound, after reading your post I feel better about feeling bad. And there just may be some things that I CAN do. Thank you for the words of inspiration.

    1. You are doing what’s most important-taking care of you and your family. I’m so glad my post helped you to realize that you don’t need to feel bad about that. And you made my day with your kind words! Seemingly small acts of kindness can mean a lot.

  2. thanks for the words of wisdom, you are a shining example.

  3. You beautifully expressed what so many of us are feeling. Very recently I told someone how blessed I was that my house wasn’t flooded. I instantly regretted saying that. Her house WAS flooded. My words hurt her. Was she not blessed? Was she punished or forgotten? I decided right then that in the future I would I would say that I feel very fortunate. The last thing I want to do is cause someone more pain. Using those words causes pain to those who lost everything.

    1. We all misspeak, and it’s hard to know what to say to someone who has lost so much. Thank you for the advice on saying “fortunate” instead of “blessed.”

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