Monday, November 5, 2012

Survivor Guilt

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City a week ago. The kids are back in school today. After a few days home, we were out and about in our Upper West Side neighborhood as if nothing had happened.

The only signs of anything being off or odd were all the big kids on the street in the middle of the day; a few more branches and leaves on the ground than on your average fall day; and the grocery stores looking sad with their half-stocked shelves.

And yet we were a little island of normal in a sea of despair and destruction.

So many of my friends sat in their cold, dark houses, cut off from the world, yearning for heat and light.

People lost homes, businesses, and lives.

A mother's young sons were ripped from her arms. Lost. (The family needs help paying for their funeral costs, please click HERE if you can give, even a little.)

And yet, here we sat, untouched, my biggest problem keeping a pair of jangly 10 year-old boys entertained and away from each others' throats.

It felt - it feels - surreal, odd. I feel uncomfortably disconnected. If I didn't have these children on my hands I would have tried to go out and do something to help the relief effort. But have them I did, 24/7, for a whole week.

My husband, a writer who can work from home as easily as anywhere, had many projects demanding his attention, deadlines to meet, and really no excuse to not work (we had lights, heat, food, internet). So he did. A lot.

So much human drama was unfolding all around us, I should have been electrified, writing away. But I wasn't. I wasn't writing a thing (facebook updates don't count).

I felt moved, horrified and numb at the same time.

The fact that this came at breakneck pace, right upon the heels of our very small, local tragedy (the Krim children's murder) just pushed me further out from my center, thunderstruck.

I feel scooped and hollow, yet vastly lucky and deeply guilty all at the same time. 

Today the children were back in school. But I still had no time to myself (train rides, surrounded by jabbering strangers don't count). I wanted to go to the Krim children's memorial service to support the family and gain some closure there, but other needs pressed: my mother. (Always my mother, these days.)

So I boarded a Long Island Railroad train today, as I had just before the storm, and went to spend the day with my mother, who has forgotten there ever was a storm, but was deeply happy to see me, as ever. (And evoking ever more guilt, as whatever I may have to give is not enough; she needs a companion, and that I just cannot be.)

She, who is now the eldest of her clan, was the one who first taught me the phrase "survivor guilt" when describing her own mother, my Grandma Dunia.

My grandmother was a difficult, gruff and mostly unloving woman. The eldest daughter of a large family in Eastern Europe who all stayed behind and vanished in the Holocaust, she was the sole adventurer, come to America. The sole survivor.

She would not talk about her family. She shut down her feelings. Her oft quoted retort to my mother - who had answered her question of "Why are you in therapy?" with "Because I'm not happy, Mom"... The classic: "Happy! So who's happy?"

Me, Mom & Grandma Dunia in 1974 (Mom was 52 = my age now!)
I fear there may be a passing down of this familial torch some day, as they say that siblings of kids with special needs often feel a form of survivor guilt, too, as they leave the family behind and march on with their lives.

I hope to spare Ethan that. But then again, it's impossible to truly control what emotional baggage we pass on to our children, can only hope it's knapsack-sized and not the whole damn steamer trunk.

Tomorrow morning we'll make cookies and bring them to Ethan's school for the traditional "Election Day Bake Sale" this year's profits going not to some school project but rather to provide relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy; assuage our collective guilt with a little sugar.

For though our buildings may have been untouched, here, our hearts have been breached by this storm. And only by reaching out with our hands, and doing... something... anything... just a little baking, even, will we move forward, together, into the sun.


  1. Imagine what it feels like to live out here in southern California where the skies were (and still are) grotesquely blue, the sun is shining incessantly, and we're still wearing flip-flops. It fills cut off -- unnatural. If only thoughts helped --

  2. Both my parents have mentally ill siblings. Both of them created completely different adult lives than their siblings were able to create. Both of them are left with the sole responsibility of aging parents. My father will eventually be left with the responsibility of an aging schizophrenic sister. Do they feel survivor guilt for living in the world differently than their siblings? I don't think they do. While both grew up with difficulty and challenges, there is a sense of gratefulness for their own lives, but also gratefulness for learning from a very young age how to empathize with people, how to work through differences when everyone else in the world is aggravated or judgmental. They have learned how to walk through the world with a little more understanding, a little more compassion and a little more desire to help those who cannot help themselves. It isn't guilt; it is a gift.

  3. I'm so thankful that your family came through the storm with no physical damage or loss. But, yes, the survivor's guilt can be strong. Let it power you and your boys to do good things and to love one another consciously.

  4. This is so intense. I love how you weave current events with past ones.

  5. What a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I've had survivor's guilt before too but not based on a national event that wreaked havoc in so many of our cities and towns. It was much closer to home and it hurts like hell.

  7. I understand so well where you are coming from. I also rode out Sandy on the Upper West Side, where we came through unscathed. On Friday I left the West Side, and moved to our new house in Westchester. Our new house was also almost completely untouched by Sandy, while so many of our new neighbors are still struggling without power, and with damaged homes. I am so thankful that we and both of our places are safe, but also feel a tremendous amount of guilt that so many are not.

  8. Survivor guilt is a real thing and it is comforting to know that others had these feelings this past week. I wrote about my own feelings of guilt over at because it's important to (a) acknowledge that they are real and (b) remind ourselves that our own experiences, even when they are not as harrowing as others', are still legitimate.

  9. This is a great line: "...what emotional baggage we pass on to our children, can only hope it's knapsack-sized and not the whole damn steamer trunk."

    It always feels so surreal to see these events in our area of the world, especially in a heavily populated area.

  10. It must have been such a difficult time and you share your thoughts so well. I was in New York last April and it was with great shock that I watched the events unfurl on Irish TV. Some shocking images. Although not shocking in the real sense I couldn't believe the photo I aw of an empty Times Square.

    xx Jazzy

  11. Really great post! I am here in NJ, still without power and no end in sight. Poles, trees and wires are still down everywhere. But I have a generator. I feel lucky. My neighbors and their 3 boys are living with us since their house is too cold. But compared to what happened at the shore and in lower Manhattan, we are doing well. Glad you have some normalcy where you are - don't feel guilty!

  12. Of my core group of friends here in NJ, we were the only ones with power up until late this afternoon. Most of my friends are still without power. The street behind me just got power back today. I wish there was something I could do. I feel terrible to be comfortable while they are not.

    So much in this post I can relate to beyond the storm. You put all into perspective quite well.

  13. Oh my gosh, survivor guilt was big in my family too. I wonder if it seeps into your DNA. I hope that things start to return to "normal" soon enough.

  14. Thanks for this! I have definitely felt that same weird powerlessness--it's hard to know what to do when you feel, but can't really DO and your life has already bounced back.

  15. I'm glad you have power and heat and that your husband got a lot of work done. People will be needing help for a long time to come, and you're already a step ahead in being available since you're not having to rebuild yourselves. I feel like Elizabeth; Austin is at its most beautiful right now, warm days, gorgeous blue skies, life outdoors or on the screen porch or at least all the windows open to let it in.

  16. In this world of instant media, I was surreal to watch the coverage of the hurricane, and worry for everyone, while sitting in my safe home in Michigan. I'm glad you made it through okay! Survivor guilt, whether it is because of siblings, or disaster, is hard to navigate. You did a great job of expressing it!

  17. Yeah, those kids' deaths hit me hard, and I'm nowhere near the East Coast. The circumstances were horrible.

  18. I'm so glad you didn't sustain terrible damage at your house. You described the "survivor's guilt" so well.

    I was really struck by the end when you talked about not really ever knowing what kind of emotional baggage pass along to your children. So, so true. I'll be thinking about that for a long time.

  19. I too think your statement about not knowing what emotional baggage we pass onto our children is a well put insight. I'm impressed by how you wove your experience with Sandy into your family's story.

  20. Very touching account of the events in your life related to the impacts of Sandy. Having grown up in Florida with many eerie moments following a hurricane and having elderly parents, much in the same state as you describe with your mother, I really related to this. Nicely

  21. When the city closest to me was devastated by a 1000-year-flood, we were merely 15 miles away. The water came down a couple of days after the rains, so it was gorgeous and green where I was and underwater 15 miles away. So much helplessness... I've been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity as they continue flood recovery -- almost 5 years later...

  22. I felt so out of touch during Sandy living in the midwest but reading your post and those from other Yeah Write writers helped me "live" it just a little bit. The story of those children, that family, were horrific. Prayers said.

    One line here that touched me was about passing baggage down to our children because we all have baggage. "can only hope it's knapsack-sized and not the whole damn steamer trunk." It is my hope too!

  23. I am thinking of you and your family. I really felt for you when I read the part about your mom. That is so hard. :(

  24. I don't feel survivor guilt in relation to a family member with problems, and my eldest shows no signs of it either, I wouldn't worry too much about Ethan, I think he will be just fine. Your words about your Mum moved me so much though, I hope you're finding some time for yourself and some ways to relieve the pressure of this difficult time xx

  25. I have been working hard to keep my hands busy--it's been my coping mechanism these last few weeks.


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