Of course we survive. We wouldn’t be here to grieve our friends if we weren’t alive. Sometimes the depth of that grief takes us by surprise, which is one of the reasons why I started this blog and my books.
But when I started writing about grieving the death of a friend, I didn’t expect to find that survivor guilt plays such a huge role in the lives of many people.
While researching the second book in my series, Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends, I learned that one of the biggest issues for long-time HIV+ men is survivor guilt. Like me, they lost a lot of friends: dozens, even hundreds. But because of luck or timing or a miracle, they’re still here today, some of them HIV+ since the 80s. A friend of mine has lost two partners, but he’s still alive and well. Only now are studies being conducted to assess the long-term effects – both physical and emotional – of being HIV+ for decades.
In my next book, Friend Grief and 9/11: The Forgotten Mourners, survivor guilt shows up not only in those who escaped the towers that day, but friends who were hundreds of miles away, on the phone, begging their friends to run up to the roof, or find a way out through the flames. Dozens of first responders and volunteers committed suicide in the first few years following 9/11; no one can give an accurate count.
And I learned very quickly, in preparing for the fourth book, Friend Grief and Community: Band of Friends, that survivor guilt is a contributing factor to the alarming rise in suicides within the military community (including veterans). It is rightly being called an epidemic, when more active duty military commit suicide than die in combat.
In all those cases – and in more mundane ones every day – people struggle to understand why their friend is gone and they’re still here. They are embarrassed, confused and likely to shut out even the most well-meaning family, friends and counselors. They seek the forgiveness they cannot give themselves, for the crime of being alive. Even those who have earned the Medal of Honor speak mostly of the buddies they could not save.
Losing a friend is hard enough, no matter the circumstances. To feel a crushing despair that can only be eased by committing suicide…that’s a double tragedy.
I’ll share more in the coming weeks about people who grieved the death of a friend. Some of them survived. Some did not. But all will touch you.