“It Should’ve Been Me”: An Insight Into Survivor’s Guilt After the Beirut Explosion

Man looking out the balcony of his destroyed house. Picture taken by Lynn Husami.

21 days have passed since 4/8, but the mushroom cloud of smoke still lingers, invisible but painfully present. Nitric acid may have disappeared from the air, but our souls are still poisoned. The glass and the rubble has been mostly cleared up, but somehow Beirut still erupts in flames. How is it that the truly guilty ones sleep comfortably, while we pace endlessly at night, sleepless, terrified by our own survival? 

“I feel dead inside.”

“It should have been me.”

“I could/should have done more.”

“Why me? Why me and not the innocent children?”

“I didn’t help. I just fled; how can I live with myself?”

“Others deserve help more than I do. I already took others’ chances once.”

— Quotes from patients of Psychologist Nada Kai who suffer from survivor’s guilt.

The scariest thing about the Beirut explosion is that absolutely anyone who was in the city could’ve fallen victim to it. Surviving the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion seems nothing short of miraculous. Some claim luck, others heavenly blessings, while others just say that the natural chaos of the world was in their favor that day. The blast affected Beirut’s most active area, and if it weren’t for the pandemic, it would be likely that many more people would have been affected. It’s always the “what ifs” that scream the loudest in a guilty conscience. It’s impossible to process that, for me, deciding to order food rather than going out to eat saved my life. How is it fair that people died because they chose to have a meal? Or because they had to work to provide for their families? Or because they simply passed by the wrong place at the wrong time? Why did I survive when they didn’t?

Survivor’s guilt occurs when a person survives an event that others did not and is plagued by feelings of guilt and suffering related to having survived that event. It is a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. The term “PTSD” has been thrown around a lot since the explosion, and for valid reasons. This collective trauma has inflicted significant psychological damage on most people. According to psychologist Kai, survivor’s guilt is one of the most common symptoms of PTSD reported by survivors of the Beirut explosion, and this puts them at risk of developing further mood disorders. 

Symptoms of survivor’s guilt are:

– Trouble sleeping (insomnia)

– Trouble eating (lack of appetite, indigestion problems)

– Numbness, confusion, lack of drive

– Repetitive flashbacks

– Uneasiness being around friends, loved ones, acquaintances, and coworkers, and a tendency to self-isolate

– Constant irritation and anger

– Feelings of intense worthlessness 

– Obsessing over the meaning and value of one’s own life

The peak of my personal survivor’s guilt was when I spoke to a friend who experienced the blast first hand. Both tragic and heroic tales littered my timeline for days, and they were hard to stomach, but seeing someone you know bandaged and beaten up by the explosion is different, and even worse. 

[Trigger warning: detailed experience of the explosion] 

This person, who had just finished having dinner at The Bros in Mar Mikhael, was propelled into a car by the impact of the blast. He described the few seconds of silence before the chaos with chilling details. He then had to drag his two, more gravely injured, friends from the restaurant to Martyrs’ Square in Downtown, where they hitchhiked a ride from a stranger who hit his car driving them to the hospital. Not only did he experience the explosion, but also had to experience the chaos of the hospital afterwards, tending to his friend’s bleeding head for hours until the doctors stitched him up.

[Trigger over.]

This brush with death didn’t ignite any feelings of guilt nor fear, according to him. In fact, it allowed him to have a more positive outlook. He believes this experience allowed him to grow and considers it to be his “test”. 

Realizing that someone carried two people for a 5km distance while being injured themselves when I freaked out over an unhinged window was hard. And this doesn’t even compare to people who lost their lives. 

Guilt. 

In the days that followed the explosion, people threw themselves into helping. Glass and rubble were cleaned; donations were made; wounds were stitched; windows were patched up; food boxes were packed. Share this, share that. There seemed to be a collective state of restlessness, and a common feeling of endless effort not being enough. People who made it through the blast pushed themselves past their limits in order to help the victims of the explosion and seemed to have forgotten that they, themselves, were also victims of the explosion. The fuel to this fire? Survivor’s guilt. 

According to Kai, most people who suffer from survivor’s guilt don’t seek professional psychological help. The assumption is always: “Others need help more than I do.” It’s as if being alive became a privilege. There you find yourself in an endless cycle: guilt because you’re alive, guilt because you’re suffering, guilt because you need help. Rinse and repeat. An evident pattern is the tendency to diminish one’s own suffering, claiming that it will fade, or that it’s manageable, or that it simply isn’t as important as other people’s struggles. This thought pattern is irrational and hurtful. It doesn’t matter whose struggle is bigger. Every person who went through the blast, no matter the damage, no matter the magnitude, no matter the loss, is a victim of the explosion. Every victim of the explosion deserves help just as much as the next one. You are a victim, and you deserve help.

There are ways to cope with survivor’s guilt, and I believe it is necessary for anyone who might be suffering from it to practice them. Asking someone to practice self-care during one of the biggest humanitarian crises in decades might sound tone-deaf, but your mental health matters. It’s not selfish to spare some time for yourself. It might feel wrong to carry on as if nothing happened, but that’s not what practicing self-care entails. A little self-provided normalcy in this chaos will help overthrow the government or go through with whatever your Saturday night plans are. 

These are ways that help cope with survivor’s guilt, as prescribed by Kai, whom I have expanded on:

– Express your emotions and thoughts by writing them down or sharing them out loud. Everything kept in is heavier. Despite the feeling that your struggles aren’t valid, writing them down, even if it’s only for your own eyes to see, will help you process your feelings. 

– Seek supporting networks and connect with others. There is solace in sharing your thoughts and feelings with people who have been through what you have. You are not alone in this, and a good support system will make coping with any negative and irrational thoughts and feelings easier. The road to recovery is more difficult when traveled alone. 

– Attempt relaxation techniques. While meditation may be too much of a stretch in these conditions, breathing exercises are quick, easy, manageable, and, most importantly, very effective in easing anxiety. 

– Attempt to regulate your eating, sleeping, exercising, and mobility patterns. This may seem incredibly hard, and for some even unfair, but it is necessary. Taking care of your body, especially during a time of pandemic, is of the utmost importance. It’s okay to take it easy, one step at a time, but returning to healthier patterns should be a goal. 

– Take part in helping others. The sense of community we grow in helping each other is one of the last slivers of hope in this country. But, like the oxygen mask tutorial on a plane, remember to help yourself before you help others. 

If your symptoms are severely distressing, please consider seeking professional help. Many mental health professionals are offering free therapy sessions to help cope with the events that transpired. No trauma is too big or too small. Whether you experienced the explosion firsthand and had to carry your friends to the hospital, had your house destroyed, experienced the tremor, or simply found out about the explosion, it’s okay to seek help. It’s okay to feel guilty and scared and angry. 

Finally, good job on making it this far. You’re doing amazing. Every effort, even if all you can do is share posts, is necessary and appreciated. The burden of the entire country isn’t yours to carry by yourself. Remember, your safety isn’t a privilege. It’s your right.

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