Survivor Guilt

There are times when naming things creates problems. We name something, then we think we know what it is. I mean, I’m looking at my barn-wood six-foot bench that I use as a coffee table. In this instance, I can’t even exactly name it – is it a bench, or is it a coffee table? But what is it? It’s made from painted wood. If I was a scientist I might know the molecular structure of that wood. But that still wouldn’t tell me what it is. Things have an is-ness that can’t be named. If we didn’t name everything and then assume we know all about it, we might get closer to what that is-ness is.

We name “conditions,” too – we get diagnoses and begin to treat the disorder. Conditions have symptoms attached to them, and it’s not uncommon for people to think they have a condition and manufacture the symptoms to match it. I bring this up because it was suggested to me that I have “Survivor Guilt”. My reaction was to recoil, like, oh, please, that’s something other people get. I’m way beyond that sort of thing. Because sometimes my sense of cool still gets offended. Because I have a habit of wanting to be different. Like I don’t want to do death like the rest of the world.

It makes no sense to me, this Survivor Guilt. For decades I swore I wanted to opt out of this life. Swore I hated it here, that I didn’t belong here. I felt too much pain in this world, with not much peace to offset it. So how I could I feel guilty being here when Philip was wherever it was I’d been wishing myself to be for so damn long?

But what explains the way I short circuit when I notice I’m happy? And what does it mean for me to be happy? I’ve had a problem with that word since way before Philip was even a thought. It seemed silly. “Happy?” Like jump up and down for joy, like everything is okay? My philosophy was something like if you’re happy you’re not paying attention. Unhappiness gave me an edge – I saw things the way they really were. Happy was cheap and weak. Surface living. Naive. And not cool – definitely not cool.

As for guilt – for what? Guilt requires having done something wrong by choice. I felt so wronged by life I swore it wasn’t possible to feel guilt. Life should feel guiIt because It was indifferent to my unhappiness. I didn’t consider that if I felt life was beating me up, I must’ve thought I deserved it – hence, guilt. As far as feeling guilty about Philip’s death – it had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could have done and I don’t make believe that there was. I’m trying to live with the reality of this, not a fantasy.

I had an idea about happy the way I had an idea about guilt. Thoughts in my head about what those words meant. I didn’t allow myself to feel them, either. I pushed those feelings into the background and let unhappiness be the foreground. But that rid me of nothing. It just let me not pay attention.

A couple weekends ago Natalie and I went to a wedding in Manhattan. My cousin was getting married, and my family was spending the night in a hotel. The ceremony and reception were held in a restaurant, and while the food was delicious, the service impeccable, and the bride a thing of beauty, the place was bathed with an eerie blue light and the acoustics required conversation to be loud and strained. The “dance floor’ was a tiny square with a DJ that had  two five foot speakers and a rough, ridged rubbery floor that stopped your shoes from doing what they really wanted to do. No matter – there were too many of us crowded on to it to move very much anyway. Who cared? We were in each others’ company to celebrate. So we did.

There were people there – family – I hadn’t seen in a long time. I forgot how much loved them, how much they loved me back. How are you, they asked? And I wasn’t sure if they were asking me how I was like everyone asks of someone not seen in a while, or if it was code for how are you since Philip died. God knows I wished they would ask that of me, but they didn’t. And I acted like that was what they’re asking me by answering with a slow blink and a pointed nod and saying, “I am okay.” I was letting them off the hook and was glad to do so. I’d no interest in making anyone uncomfortable.

Except that later, returning to my seat from the dance floor, I sat alone and wished I could cry to just one of them. They were laughing and talking the way I was laughing and talking. So where was Philip in all this? Did they think I forgot him? Were any of them thinking of him? Why am I so hungry for a witness to what I suffer?

Or did I just think I needed to suffer as a testament to my love for him? And if I think I am losing him in my moments of pleasure then what’s really going on is that I feel guilty that I could laugh while he’s dead. Survivor guilt isn’t what I thought – it didn’t mean feeling like I should have died instead of Philip. I’m not so arrogant to think I know who should be dead and who shouldn’t. What it is is the way I sometimes catch my breath when I realize I like what I’m doing or I’m enjoying the people around me and I stop it all to think, how could any of this matter when my son is dead?

The idea of Philip’s death is not the reality of it. The idea of it is that he’s gone and I cannot live in peace without him. The reality is he’s around me all the time. I have a relationship with him, the kind that matters – that of the heart. That doesn’t change, and what doesn’t change is what’s real. In other words, love. If we are not here to love, what can anything matter?

I have changed since Philip died. I have become more friendly. I smile more. I’m interested. In you. I think that happiness is a gift we give to others. My happiness is more about you than me, but if I can share it with you it’s because it is inside of me. I can somewhat handle happy in a more controlled environment. Like work. I’m all about helping, I’m cheerful, calm and steady. When I see a call coming in from someone I don’t want to talk to, I might sigh and roll my eyes but when I answer I am pleasant and helpful. And I’m okay with that until I hear my co-workers talking about their kids who are in college or have graduated from college and are flying off to new jobs and new marriages and I am reminded I will never dance at Philip’s wedding and that I can’t share with them the relationship I have with him now.

What do we owe the dead? Nothing, I would argue. They are past owing. To owe is to be obligated to – but if I believe I can’t be happy without Philip here, then I must think I owe him my grief. And my guilt. As if that’s anything he would want.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Robin
    Sep 30, 2015 @ 20:29:09

    I will never forget the joy you brought to my life. It is fresh in my mind seeing you peak around the corner of my house in Indiana and I can still feel the overwhelming emotion and tears of joy running down my face. We had many laughs and memories from that weekend. I will also never forget how Philip was with us through different signs. He will always share in your joy and your sorrow. I’m glad that you’ve shared Philip with me.

    Reply

    • Denise
      Oct 03, 2015 @ 08:21:34

      Thank you, Robin. That was a much-needed weekend for me, too. I will never forget the look on your face – it still makes me smile. I’m glad you’re closer – and the holidays are coming, you know we’ll be seeing each other more. xoxoxo

      Reply

  2. SusanB
    Sep 30, 2015 @ 22:33:45

    Your happiness is a moving target. Finding peace is your quest because you gotta stay here until the Big Guy decides your time here is done. Your writing hit a chord. Well said. Especially asking what we owe the dead. It’s Time.

    Reply

    • Denise
      Oct 03, 2015 @ 08:24:44

      A moving target – yes. And peace is my quest…seems too hard sometimes, you know? I love fall, but the change of weather feels like the holidays, and I start missing Philip more. Damnit, I want to scream…but every time I cry for him, I hear him. “Mom, I’m right here.” Which brings me back and back, over and over to asking myself just what I think death is.

      Reply

  3. pedro
    Oct 04, 2015 @ 19:20:50

    Hi, this posting struck a nerve for me. something for us to talk about for sure. I’m Happy to see that you posted.

    Pedro

    Reply

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