Meredith and six of her fellow doctors board a plane—one of many in their lifetimes—in a hurry, each with their own distractions and busy minds. Suddenly the plane starts shaking uncontrollably and their attentions are reverted; within minutes, the plane has fallen out of the sky and they’re scattered among the trees below.

Meredith emerges unscathed and works effortlessly to find her friends hidden among the debris, pinned down by the plane’s wreckage, and calling out for help from afar. Unfortunately, Meredith loses her younger sister, Lexi, after she discovers her trapped under the plane’s wing. Despite the doctors’ efforts, Lexi remains trapped and dies from the pressure and injuries. Another doctor, Meredith’s husband Derek, almost loses his surgery hand and another, Arizona, loses her leg. Eventually the doctors are rescued, but a few weeks later one of them, Mark, dies from internal bleeding despite apparent signs of progressive recovery.

For those of you who are not familiar, this is the final episode of the eighth season of Grey’s Anatomy. All of the doctors had loved ones behind, including other fellow doctors, as well as wives, boyfriends, sisters, and kids. And many of these individuals feel survivor’s guilt, specifically Alex Karev, a great friend and fellow attending of the six crash victims. Alex was supposed to be on that plane but gave up his seat to Arizona, who at one point blames him for her loss.


Many individuals experience survivor’s guilt, such as cancer survivors, those who lost a fellow service member, and those who were involved in an accident that took another’s life. They ask questions like:

  • “Why am I still here?”
  • “Why did I survive?”
  • “Why them?”
  • “Why not me?”
  • “Why did this happen?”

This guilt is a common reaction to loss and other traumatic events and can take awhile to remedy. However, it should be addressed quickly and sufficiently, as to prevent psychological health issues. The following guidelines may help you cope with your survivor’s guilt:

  • Acknowledge your feelings: Don’t try to hide your guilt or push it to the side. Confront it head on and accept that you feel this way.
  • Seek support: You shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for help. Talk to your friends and family about your feelings, or maybe even a therapist. Getting everything out in the open and getting advice from others will help you move on.
  • Give yourself time to mourn: Pay attention to other feelings you might have, such as sadness and grief. You need to allow yourself the time to mourn your lost and pay the individual(s) respect.
  • Turn the negatives around: Do something to serve the greater good, such as making a donation, helping out at the local homeless shelter, giving blood. This will give you a greater purpose and make you feel better about being alive today.

Effects of Survivor’s Guilt

Those suffering with survivor’s guilt see some common side effects from it. For example, Alex in Grey’s Anatomy, convinces himself that he should have been on that plane, not Arizona, and that he should have died. After coming to this conclusion, he becomes very angry, distances himself from his friends, and appears to lose control over his emotions. Here are some common effects of survivor’s guilt explored:

  • Shock and disbelief. An individual who just experienced a loss and onset of survivor’s guilt may go in and out of states of shock.
  • Sleep deprivation. People who suffer with survivor’s guilt may find it difficult to fall or stay asleep.
  • Persistent nightmares. For those that do sleep, they have frequent nightmares about the loss or traumatic experience.
  • Loss of control over emotions. Individuals experiencing survivor’s guilt have trouble controlling their emotions. For example, they might lash out at friends and family or even strangers out of nowhere.
  • Withdrawal from others. Some become distant from their loved ones, which can be very harmful. These individuals should instead by relying on their loved ones for support.
  • Anger. Individuals with survivor’s guilt may feel angry all of the time—angry that it wasn’t them instead who died, and angry that they can’t bring the other person(s) back.
  • Difficulty concentrating. People who suffer from survivor’s guilt may find it hard to concentrate at work or on simple tasks.
  • Suicidal or harmful thoughts. Certain individuals with survivor’s guilt experience suicidal thoughts as well as thoughts about harming others. In these cases, the guilt is severe and should be treated.

Facts vs. Fictions

Survivor’s guilt is…

    …draining and hurtful.
    …at times mild and at others severe.
    …a large weight on one’s back.
    …real and life-threatening.

Survivor’s guilt is not…

    …fictitious or exaggerated.
    …easy to deal with.
    …picky—all people can suffer from it.
    …something to be ignored.

Treatment for Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt generally goes away on its own with time. However, severe forms and those that last longer than six months should be treated. Therapy can help an individual face his problems and come up with additional ways to cope with the trauma. Additionally, there are hotlines and support groups for specific survivors experiencing this guilt, such as cancer survivors and veterans.

If you are a cancer survivor and need help or just want to talk, call 888-793-9355 for free today.

If you are a service member, veteran, or a family member of the former, and you need help or just want to talk, call 888-457-4838 for free today.