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Survivor Guilt Stings Many

October 6, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) _ Manu Dhingra escaped a fireball at the World Trade Center, making his way down from the 83rd floor despite burns covering a third of his body.

Now safely at home recovering, the 27-year-old securities broker is struggling with an emotion shared by perhaps thousands of others: survivor guilt.

``Everybody is so upbeat and so happy about my living, and I am very happy about it,″ he said. ``But at the same time I have such deep sorrow that this is happening. I don’t know ... why I deserve this. I don’t know why I have a second chance.″

Such doubts are being found even in people who weren’t directly affected by the disaster. Counseling centers say their hot lines have been busy with calls from people who complain of unease, depression and a sense of vulnerability because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Experts emphasize the feelings are normal, given the shocking circumstances, and that it demonstrates human compassion and empathy.

``Everybody in New York is thinking, ’That could have been me,‴ said Aphrodite Matsakis, author of ``Survivor Guilt: A Self-Help Guide.″ ``And once you think, ‘That could have been me,’ it’s a short step to thinking, ’Why wasn’t it me?‴

As a result, experts say people throughout the New York area, and to a lesser degree around the country and world, might be experiencing symptoms of survivor guilt: drinking or overeating, loss of concentration, sleeplessness, even breaking off an engagement or putting off childbearing.

``It’s a lack of getting pleasure out of life,″ said Christopher Kosseff, who heads a New Jersey counseling network that drew 1,000 calls to a hot line in three weeks.

``You can’t get your mind off the deaths you experienced in some way.″

Survivor guilt is experienced most by people who came close to death themselves or saw others perish, and afterward can’t shake a feeling of self-condemnation for escaping when others did not.

New York police Capt. Timothy Pearson was with Officer John Perry, evacuating people from the trade center’s north tower when the south tower collapsed. He escaped the storm of debris and smoke and assumed Perry had, too. But Perry did not get out, and now Pearson asks, ``How come I made it out and John didn’t?″

Many other people feel a close connection because the attack and collapse of the towers were shown so vividly on television and the evidence of the disaster was so easy to see and smell, even from a distance.

``There are many things people might feel guilty about,″ Matsakis said. ``You might feel guilty because you thought it was exciting to watch, or because you wondered what it looked like when the people who jumped hit the ground. Maybe you thought, ‘Oh, some of those rich guys deserved it.’ Or maybe you don’t feel guilty and you feel guilty about not feeling guilty.″

Some 911 dispatchers are struggling with the regret of sending firefighters into the doomed towers.

``I felt guilt when the building came down,″ dispatcher Monsitah Corney said. ``I felt very bad because I told them to stay there.″

At its worst, survivor guilt can be immobilizing, said Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard psychiatrist who has written about Hiroshima and the nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Generally, though, symptoms will be milder in those with no direct connection to a victim.

``Not everyone has to get help,″ he said. ``But everyone needs to go through a certain amount of mourning. It’s important for them to have affectionate, loving ties around them. Also, they need time. They shouldn’t be rushed or pushed.

``Mayor Giuliani says `Go back to normal,′ and that’s OK for most of us, but it might not be what a survivor needs.″

Experts said it’s common for survivors to change their life as a way of dealing with the tragedy.

``They cannot find anything meaningful in the deaths they saw so they look for a sense of meaning in their subsequent life,″ Lifton said. ``They may try to change what they do in life, try to benefit people in some cases.″

Jonsye Worthman, a counselor from Mount Pleasant, S.C., who is volunteering with the Red Cross in New York, said she saw a woman who had lost a child in the Oklahoma City bombing comforting a woman who lost a child in the trade center.

``It’s important to focus on finding a way to make something positive happen,″ Worthman said. ``I might ask a mother who lost a son, ‘If you had the opportunity to ask your son what he’d want you to do, what would he say?’

``The answer,″ she said, ``is never ’sit around and feel guilty.‴


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