It is day 8 of SHTF. You are hunkered down in your retreat location waiting it out and trying to understand what’s happening. The digital TV sets became useless about 3 hours into the event but at night, the old AM stations still come in from the major cities.
You’re listening to the ham radio operators and things are going poorly everywhere. The family is asleep, there is no immediate threat, it is quiet and you have time to think.
Why me? Why did I make it and so many others, some of them my friends, some of them I consider better than me, didn’t survive. I was better prepared, maybe, but still, luck always has a part. Why am I here and they are missing or dead? If I had only stayed a couple of days longer we could have made it together. If I’d let them know were I was going to be they could have joined me and we’d have made it together. “IF ONLY” ….. two of the most damning, soul killing words in the English language.
Welcome to the world of survivor’s guilt. While similar to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) it is not the same thing. In the book “Wake of the Wahoo” (Forest Sterling – available on Amazon, click here) Sterling talks about the feelings he had as he was getting off the Wahoo before she made her final, fatal voyage. He was their good luck charm and felt he had betrayed the crew by leaving.
The day after I left Viet Nam, the man who took over as Aircraft Commander on my Huey had a tail rotor failure. He blew the emergency procedure and crashed my bird. He was the only one to escape uninjured. If only I hadn’t left early for a class date at Fort Sill, I’d have been flying that day and none of my crew would have gotten hurt. No one has ever been able to tell me otherwise.
Survivor’s guilt. I should have stayed/left/moved/done something differently and everything would have turned out OK. That is not true, alternate futures are unknowable, but a great many survivors feel that way. The emotion can be strong enough to be fatal. The Captain of the USS Indianapolis committed suicide in 1968. He never forgave himself for surviving the sinking of his ship, even though all available evidence points to failures on the part of the Navy not the ship or its captain.
So, if I survive SHTF or TEOTWAWKI, I may well have serious issues to confront. Especially if a member of my family or group doesn’t make it, the possibility of survivor’s guilt hangs heavy over our heads. Many marriages break up over the death of a child for this very reason. We blame ourselves or our spouse and every time we see them it reminds us of our loss. We can’t live that way so divorce follows.
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Learning to accept things we can not change is a part of the tool kit for any survivor. We will make mistakes in our preparation and execution of our plans. The key is to deal not with the outcome but with the decision. If, given the same circumstances and facts, you would make the same decision today – knowing only what you knew then – then you made the correct decision. The result is a combination of your decision, luck, others’ decisions and circumstances. All are beyond your control except your decision.
The hard part about grief and guilt is that there is no easy way to deal with it. You must live through it; if not for you then for the others for whom you are responsible. With time, healing happens but it is a difficult time. In the case of a child, if the spouses can stay together and help each other, they are closer and stronger on the back side. It isn’t easy but it is true.
A real risk about guilt is that it begins to make you question your own ability. You begin to second guess every choice you make. This is fatal in a survival situation. Nothing terrifies followers more than indecision from the leaders. The Army taught us in OCS that even the wrong decision, made in a timely manner and prosecuted vigorously is infinitely better that the perfect decision made after the moment has passed.
I am not the perfect leader. I can and have made serious mistakes which had grave consequences for all involved. That is life and it will happen to all of us. It will happen to me again if I live long enough. Even if we try to never make a decision that in itself is a decision with consequences. The key for each of us is to learn to be less than perfect. Knowing I will make mistakes allows me to make the best decisions I can make, prosecute that decision vigorously and then accept the results. Even if less that optimum, IF I did my best, what happened was beyond my control. That is a rock to cling to until the storm of uncertainty, doubt and guilt pass. Recognizing what is happening won’t help the pain much but it does make it easier to accept.
In a SHTF environment, we will each be called on to make such decisions, perhaps many times. The key for the group is for you to appear confident. Your self assurance is their rock. The key for you is for you to accept what is and then do your best with it. Knowing that you can’t control everything is your rock. The results will be what ever happens but you will be able to emotionally survive and therefore help everyone else to survive.