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Survivor’s Guilt and 9/11

I’m probably a little late with this post. September 11th has come and gone once again. Still, we need to keep remembering…

Did you watch the media coverage? Were you drawn in? Or did you avoid it altogether?

My hubby said, “Why do you want to watch this stuff? I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure I can.”

Many people probably felt that way, but I found myself once again drawn to the coverage.

There are certain historical events that take place in every person’s lifetime that leave a permanent imprint on them. I know I’m dating myself here a bit, but ones that immediately come to mind for me are the three assassinations; President Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Bobby Kennedy’s. Their deaths were so violent and so unexpected; they literally left the entire nation stunned each time it heard the news. When President Kennedy was killed the whole country stopped in its tracks for days. I was only 8 years old, but I’ll never forget the continuous television coverage and the eerily somber mood that was everywhere.

September 11th was another one of “those days;” a day when most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news, or at least I do. I was home after getting my youngest off to school. I watched the second plane hit the second tower as it happened. I literally watched the horror unfold. Saying it was unbelievable to watch sounds far too trite, but that’s what it was, unbelievable.

This past weekend when I watched the September 11th coverage, I wondered how people who were there that day as the horror unfolded felt. I wondered how people who lost loved ones felt when their loved ones didn’t come home that day. I wondered how exhausted those fire fighters felt at the end of that day and how many nights passed before they were able to sleep again. I wondered how people who made it out of those buildings alive felt when they saw others jumping from windows from the corners of their eyes. I wondered how all of the survivors of that entire horrendous day felt when the day mercifully ended.

I also wondered how they feel today.

Do they suffer from survivor’s guilt? Or do they choose to only focus on the gratitude?

Somehow I doubt it. I imagine every person that did survive that day has wondered more than a few times, why me? Why did I survive?

Cancer patients suffer from survivor’s guilt too.

I think it’s one of the reasons I so often hesitate to call myself a cancer survivor.

Why should I get to call myself a survivor when others cannot?

Why am I still here when others are not?

Why are some living with stage IV and I am not?

Why them?

Why not me?

That’s what survivor’s guilt is about; asking the questions that have no answers.

I am by no means comparing my cancer survival to the horror of what people lived through on September 11th.  I would never do that.

I’m simply asking what all survivors ask, why not me?

In a way we became a whole country of survivors that day in September. We all knew it could have happened in our city or town. We all knew it could have been us.

Cancer survivors know the same thing. It could have been us. It still could be.

As survivors of 9/11, cancer, a natural disaster, or any profound event, we need to do the same thing.

We need to remember.

Is there an event that had a profound impact on you?

Did you watch the 9/11 media coverage?

Do you ever feel survivor’s guilt?

Reflecting pool at 9/11 memorial in NYC

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial
At Garden of Reflection Memorial in PA

35 thoughts to “Survivor’s Guilt and 9/11”

  1. Very thought-provoking, excellent posting, Nancy!

    Your questions are valid, and here’s the other part of cancer survivor’s guilt (and yes, I call myself a survivor, but I wish for a better word): Why am I glad that it was me who survived? I feel so selfish saying this, and that’s a big part of the guilt. But mostly, I’m really upset that life is so unfair, that great people have to suffer and die. It’s life, which can be cruel. And I wonder a lot why did I live? But wondering why is futile, I think, and I’ve made a pact with myself to not wonder why.

    Because we will never know. Why do young people die in auto accidents? Why do children get cancer? It’s so overwhelming.

    In terms of 9/11, that was a really bad year for me. See, I was diagnosed with cancer in January of 2001 and had my last treatment in August 2001. Just as I was starting to feel better physically and optimistic, 9/11 happened…on the day I was seeing one of my cancer docs. I wanted to give blood, but I had chemo in it.

    2001 began horribly and ended horribly.

    Added to that, I’m originally from NY, so I was frantically worried about my brother who works downtown not far from the Empire State Building and my aunt, who lives in Manhattan. I couldn’t contact anyone until the late night.

    Seeing those towers I loved so dearly fall and knowing people were dying horrible deaths was too much for me to bear.

    After cancer, my world made no sense. After 9/11, it made even less sense. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to deal with what happened to me.

    Again, thanks for such a thoughtful blog post. I love your writing!

    1. Beth, Thank you for your very insightful comments. Of course, you’re right that wondering why is futile, but still sometimes I can’t help it. Life is such a crap shoot isn’t it? 2001 was an incredibly bad year for you. You endured an awful lot. I can’t imagine how you must have felt on Sept 11, 2001 actually knowing people in the midst of that horror. It was bad enough for someone like me who was far removed. It was a very sad day indeed. Did you watch any media coverage on the tenth anniversary or did you avoid it altogether?

  2. Nancy,

    As always a thought provoking post. I watched some of the coverage. i wasn’t sure I would. But, ultimately I watched some. I have family in New York and a cousin who is living with a horrible illness caused by the chemicals and exposure by being so close to the towers. Her office was just a few blocks away and she was covered in all of the debris and had to breath it in while escaping the area (like so many).

    She suffers a great deal. I thought of her all day on Sunday as I watched the footage and tried to imagine her on that day, actually there, breathing that in, seeing that horrible, horrible tragedy up close.

    I can’t even imagine.

    Thank you for such a great post. I feel so many of these feelings you express. I do not really like the word survivor either, and I do have that “survivor’s guilt”. I wonder if my cousin does.

    All the best,

    1. Lisa, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s terrible your cousin is still dealing with the effects of that awful day. The losses and the misery weren’t limited to that one day, week or year, but continue on for too many- all the more reason we can’t forget.

  3. Another thoughtful post, Nancy!

    Maybe this is weird, but I don’t think of myself in survivors terms. I don’t feel any guilt. I’m still moving through the muck and mire. Still have my tinted blinders on. Still just putting one foot in front of the other.

    How long did it take before you felt survivor’s guilt?


    1. Renn, Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s interesting that you say you have no guilt feelings because you are still moving throught the muck and mire. As to when did I start to feel survivor’s guilt, that’s a good question. I guess I keep thinking of my mom and then friends that have passed away or who are presently living with mets. I wonder why them and not me sometimes. That’s just something I feel from time to time, not all the time. Also I’m BRCA, so there are a few issues with that. Some of my guilt isn’t actually survivor’s guilt, but comes in to play in other areas. Guess I need to blog about guilt sometime!

    2. I did not feel Survivor’s Guilt until 2 years or so after my bone marrow transplant. It took me another 6 months to finally pick up the phone and call my Dr. to ask if other bone marrow transplant survivor’s ever had these dark feelings of depression and guilt (although I would not have recognized it as guilt) I think Survivor’s Guilt is more than just feeling guilty. Rather it encompasses a range of emotions including bouts of depression that come and go depending upon ones physical and emotional ability to deal with life at the moment. I got help and worked through all the emotions but then got hit with it all over again when I required a “boost” from my donor. That triggered all of the trauma surrounding the initial bone marrow transplant even though it was a minimal procedure although “boosts” can be quite dangerous and trigger all of the original concerns like Graft vs Host Disease. I have fought Survivor’s Guilt and bouts of isolated depression because of ongoing medical issues for years. I don’t know if I am different or not. I can’t find any real research or studies that help me understand what to expect next or how to deal with it while I have so many other medical issues. They just never stop. I think people need to be educated so it can be openly discussed. My experience has been from friends and family the following attitude. “Oh i don’t get that. You should be thrilled you are alive when others have not survived!!! Why do you feel guilty?” Why or how could you possibly come up with such a horrible feeling?” Gee , how helpful is that and why would I ever bring it up again. We go into hiding. Education is the key. If you experience any of the emotions that are associated with “survivors guilt or depression” I hope you can find a professional to help or at the very least find a friend or family member who will validate your feelings whether they understand them or not. God bless you

      1. Maggie, Thank you so much for making some very important points. I think you’re right that survivor’s guilt encompasses a range of emotions triggered by many varying things. Like always, education both for ourselves and for others is key. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I’m with Renn too
    Right smack in the middle of the muck and mire of it too.
    With a long way to go. So far to go yet, I can only take it one day at a time.
    I watched it for about 3 hours on Tv that morning.
    It brought back so much of where I was that day.
    worrying about my grandson who was born and on a respirator and the Drs had no idea what was wrong with him.
    My poor daughter who was staying with me then just wanting to get back to the hospital to her baby.
    It ended up he had cystic fibrosis and was born struggling to breathe.

    I could only take the 3 hours…It was just to painful to keep reliving it.
    It was weird…I almost felt guilty when I turned the Tv off and said no more.
    I felt the most sorry for the little kiddo’s who are growing up without their moms or dads.

    1. Debbi. One day at a time is the only way to go. Sorry you have such painful memories of that day as do many others. If I may ask, did your grandson survive? I know what you mean about turning the tv off, it feels like trying to shut it out in a way, but… and yes, too many kids growing up without their moms or dads as a result of that day. Thank you for commenting, Debbi.

  5. Another post close to the bone for me Nancy! In a funny way, the “why me” questions I sometimes asked myself when first diagnosed with cancer, became reversed afterwards. That “why me – why did I get cancer when others don’t” has been turned around to “why me – why do I get to survive when others don’t”. And I ask myself the question if I have survived, what is the deeper meaning of my life after this experience? My guilt tends to arise from a sense that what I’m doing with my life must have greater meaning if my survival is to be justified.

    1. Marie, I know, Marie, I understand about your questioning the reasons for survival. Regardless, it all seems like one big crap shoot doesn’t it? I think you can rest assured that you are indeed doing meaningful things with your life. Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts here.

  6. Hi Nancy,

    I avoided the 9/11 coverage altogether, no media at all. Just can’t handle it and don’t think I’ll ever be able to. I actually had a good day with my daughter at a local carnival, feeling that the best way for me to show the terrorists that they didn’t win was to enjoy life in the US and that 9/11 didn’t stop this country from having joy.

    I also have never visited Ground Zero and the memorial. I don’t think I ever will. Too difficult for me.

    Interestingly enough, a few years before 9/11, my brother and I were in a picture together in Battery Park, and you could see the beautiful towers in the background.

    1. Beth, It’s entirely understandable why you avoided all the coverage. I don’t blame you one bit. Choosing to spend time with your daughter, well it’s hard to top that for showing you are continuing on and enjoying day-to-day life. The terrorists failed in that part of their mission. It must be very emotional for you to see pictures of yourself and loved ones posing with the towers in the background. Sometimes I see the towers in a movie or something and even that feels very strange and quite sad, not even close to what people such as yourself must feel though. Thanks for sharing more of your memories and thoughts, Beth.

  7. Dear Nancy, thanks for this poignant post. We do need to reflect on events that profoundly affect us and change our lives. The event with the most profound impact on me personally was the 1989 earthquake near San Francisco. That morning I was traveling on the bottom part of the Cypress structure that collapsed later on in the day, crushing all people who were unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I spent the night with a coworker and went back to work the next morning in the same clothes.

    I didn’t watch the 9/11 media coverage. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I didn’t want the survivor guilt and tears for the victims’ families to bubble up all over again.

    And I have felt survivor’s guilt when friends in a support group didn’t make it but I did. Why did my children get to have their mother during their growing-up years, but these women’s children grew up motherless? No answers. Just a profound sadness.

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Jan, Thank you for sharing about an event that had an impact on your life. An earthquake would be terrifying that’s for sure. Such events make us very aware of life’s fragility don’t they? I think you were not alone in choosing to not watch the 9/11 media coverage. Sometimes it just gets to be too much. I understand about that survivor’s guilt you felt when you lost friends in your support group. That must have been very hard and as you said, profoundly sad. As always, thanks for your meaningful thoughts, Jan.

  8. I am very sad for all the people who lost family members that day and for the people who have died or are sick because of the chemicals or because of related injuries.

    I’ve chosen to distance myself from nearly all TV media. I just can’t stand the sensationalism. I didn’t watch any coverage except for the unavoidable mentions during the Vikings game and a few commercials. I also avoided reading any coverage online. I did read an article in our local paper about the (now 18-year-old) second graders Bush was reading to when he heard “the news.” I’m pretty sure it was an AP article. And I did find it interesting.

    1. Lindsay, I think you might be very wise in choosing to distance yourself from TV media. It is really sad that people are still dealing with the effects of breathing all the smoke and chemicals that day as well as injuries suffered. The repercussions never end for those directly involved. I would be interested to read that article about the now 18-year-old person who was with President Bush that day. People have criticized Bush for his calm demeanor that day, but I think he did the only thing he could there in keeping up a cool facade.

  9. hi nancy your blog made me think so much i am like you i do have survivor’s guilt. i have often wondered how come i made it when so many other’s who where going through treatment with me didn’t , i had a large tumour 7.5cm but my lymph nodes were clear . i made many friend’s on a cancer website that got me through some of my darkest day’s lots of them were terminaly ill & have now sadly gone .i never met them face to face but we shared our fear’s together it was a bond i will feel forever . also my dad was diagnosised with lung cancer in november 05 he passed away six weeks later in january 06 , i think in a way my guilt started when i had passed the six week mark .At the time i wanted to get over those first six weeks for my children who had been devastated by the death of their much loved granddad to show them that i would be a survivor .I did wonder how i had done it when my lovely dad didn’t . i live in the UK but the twin tower’s had a massive affect here as well i remember that day so well i had finished my nightshift where i worked & was in bed it was around 2pm UK time when it happened my eldest daughter anne-marie woke me up telling me to put the tv on in my bedroom as i did the second plane hit the second tower i felt shock , disbelief that it could be happening all the tv station’s had the coverage on all day . i had a deep sadness for all the lives lost & the people still trapped the courage of the emergency service’s who risked & lost their own lives trying to rescue & help people . the horror of watching people jump out of the window’s . i also remember where i was when i heard of the death of princess diana i was in bed that day also ,it was about 8am & my sister had seen the new’s on tv she drove over to my house came into the bedroom & just came out with it. we both cried so much for the loss of someone so young she was just a year older than me . Our country came to a standstill that day . On the morning of her funeral i was on an early shift on the way to work it was very errie there was not many people about normaly my town was comming alive at that time but the town center was empty shops didnt open the thing that does stick’s in my mind is when my bus stopped by the town hall i saw two men comming out the kind that you would call a man’s man the town hall had opened a rememberance book for diana & they had i gather just signed both looked very sad it struck me then how much everyone had loved our beautiful princess . i had already signed the book it was to be passed on to her two boy’s.there must have been many a one sent to them & i am sure that they got to see how much their mum was loved not just here but all over the world . i have the brca 2 gene mutation i found out last year , i have five children & this year found out that i have passed it on to one of my daughter’s that is another guilt that i feel though i know i shouldn’t it’s still there . my other four are still waiting for their test dates to come through . my daughter is 22yrs old & is now thinking of when will be the best time to have a mastectomy with reconstruction it’s not something a 22yr old should be thinking of is it .so the guilt goes on . i know i am lucky to be here & iam so thankfull in march this year i was with my eldest daughter when she gave birth to her first child a little boy oliver , my third beautifull grandchild so i have so many things to be happy about also thank you for your blogs take care theresa

    1. Theresa, Thank you for sharing. All I can say about the guilt stuff is I understand. My mom used to feel so guilty about passing on the BRCA gene mutation and I never really understood that since obviously it wasn’t her fault. I don’t really have guilt around that, the way I see it everyone is passing on all kinds of stuff we just don’t know about them all yet. I do worry about my kids, but… My guilt there is more about choices I made or didn’t make. The day Princess Diana died was very sad here too. I remember my mom stayed up late or got up early to watch her funeral. As for 9/11, that event had world-wide impact and it was on such a large scale, it’s still unbelievable to me that it actually happened. Congrats on the birth of your third grandchild this year and thanks for reading my blog. I appreciate it.

  10. Nice, Nancy. I watched some of the coverage, but not a lot. I had stopped working in the city about 10 months prior to 9/11, but, my brother was at work in the West 50’s when it happened and it was hours before we heard from him, but thankfully, he was fine. It’s a tough day. I find myself wanting to explain it now to my young guys, at least my 7 year old. I feel we owe it to those that died, not to forget them. They were people just like me, or my brother. Innocent, just going to work like any other day and that’s what I can’t get out of my mind.

    I don’t know if it’s guilt about 9/11, but I certainly have cancer guilt in many ways. The chat the other night has me thinking a lot about it. I think there’s a post brewing.

    1. Stacey, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories of that day. It must have been really frightening waiting to hear from your brother and also realizing you could have been going to work yourself that day too. It’s mind boggling really and no, we can’t forget. I understand your wanting to explain about it all to your boys, but how do you explain something like that? As for the cancer guilt, I know what you mean, mine comes and goes. Looking forward to that post.

  11. Nancy – Thank you for writing this post. I think about survivor guilt a lot. Why did I find out young that I had the gene mutation and then get such effective screening that my cancer was caught at Stage 1? Why am I so lucky?

    What I try to remember is that each of us have a different path and I try to make the best of the one I am on. But, it’s so important to celebrate the LIVES of the people we have lost, whether in 9/11 or through this disease.
    Thank you for helping me keep this in mind.
    Big hugs,

    1. Terri, I’m not sure I would call having the gene and getting cancer at such a young age being lucky, but I know what you mean. You’re right, each person follows their own path the best way they can. And yes, remembering and celebrating lives lost to cancer or 9/11 is essential and something to not just do on one particular day. Thanks for your comments, Terri.

  12. I watched making of the memorial in New York, could not watch anything that had to do with the attack, still too hard and emotional. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was one of those moments of time you will never forget (I also remember the day Kennedy was shot, exactly where I was and what I was doing)As far as survivor guilt, I don’t really feel that, maybe because I am not far enough removed from it, not sure. Maybe when I start going in for checkups every year versus every three months, looking forward to that day

    1. Garden Lady, It is hard to watch clips of the actual attack isn’t it? So heart wrenching to think about all those people lost… I’m looking forward to the day I only need to go for annual check ups too. I wonder if you start to worry less then. Good luck with your upcoming appointments and thanks for commenting.

  13. Hi Nancy,
    What was actually happening on 9/11 and its aftermath is a blur to me. My husband was in the process of dying from colon cancer that week. My strongest reaction was “please don’t let him die today, please let him have his own death date.” I don’t know why that was so important to me, perhaps I didn’t want his death to get lost. He died on 9/16/01.

    I was talking about this with our daughter last week. As selfish as I know it is, we both agreed that it is difficult to focus on a national tragedy when your own life is being torn apart.

    So every year we do a nodding acknowledgement of the overwhelming tragedy of 9/11 and then honor our own fallen hero. He fought cancer for seven years with such grace and dignity he is still my inspiration.

    1. Kay, It’s completely understandable you did not want your husband’s death to “get lost.” This marks ten years for you on a very personal level then. I’m sorry. I like the way you speak of him as your own fallen hero and inspiration. That’s lovely. Thanks for sharing this very personal comment, Kay.

  14. I have been blessed and have known very few people who have been struck with cancer – and I pray that I will not be affected in the future either. chances are slim, I suppose.
    But the reason I have found this page is because of the media coverage surrounding the 10th year mark of the WTC attacks. I have been so truly affected from remembering that day that I’m having difficulty putting the past behind me.
    I did not know anybody directly in NYC or closely related to the WTC, but having re-visited those memories has really affected me. I’m almost compelled to say more so now than in 2001. I’m from montreal. I just can’t get the tragic story out of my mind. I have a great deal of sorrow from just remembering. It’s as if the reality had not struck me until this year. Maybe because I am a father now, and I was not 10 years ago.
    In the space of about an hour, over 2,700 lives were extinguished. Thousands of life insurance policies kicked in. These individuals weren’t just airline passengers and office workers. These people were loved ones/ brothers/ sisters/ mommies/ daddies/ bedtime story readers/ aunts/ uncles/ miracles of life.
    To be affected by an inexplicable disease such as cancer is one thing, and I’m not down playing that, but- How can any living human being have so much hatred to plan such violence against fellow human beings?
    Every human life is a miracle. Every moment of life should be enjoyed. some should be cherished. I do not take that for granted.

    May God bless each one of you and your loved ones. I truly hope we can advance to find a cure soon.

    1. Claude, Thank you for finding my page and commenting. I’m sorry you are having such difficulty putting that day behind you. I think the 10 year anniversary is a major milestone, so perhaps that has something to do with it; it’s hard to fathom it’s been that long, but yet it seems like yesterday. Or perhaps, as you mentioned, it’s because you’re a father now. It is umimaginable to think such hatred exists to do such a thing isn’t it? The events of that day affected the whole world and all we can do now is not forget. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  15. Wow, what a comfort to find that there are people who feel as I do about survivors guilt. I do not have cancer and pray I never will, but oh how it has touched my life…..I have lost a mother and an aunt within 3 years of each other because of cancer. Life seems to be so fragile, yet we sometimes treat it as if it were made of steel. I know that I find ways to feel sorry for myself and get self absorbed, even when I try my hardest not to take anything for granted.I think this is why we all feel some sort of survivors guilt, even if tragedy has not fallen directly in our laps. We know that life is precious, yet the days of snarled traffic, crappy weather and endless bills can make anyone look up and say “why me”. Sept. 11 had the most profound effect on me. I knew no one personally involved, I never had been to NYC., and I was a wife and mother who was supposedly safe and secure.
    That was a horrific event! I didn’t know it at the time, but because of those did not give up, did not give in and found strength to carry on, they inspired me to do something to make sure that we as a people, a nation and hopefully a world will never have to endure the evil that some wish to breed and spread. I am now in my last year of college at the wonderful age of 43 and will receive my BA in Homeland Security this coming May. If I can play any role ( even just pushing papers )in preventing another 9-11, then I will feel as though nothing has been in vain. I hope one day my degree will be obsolete and just a memory, but until that day…….I hope to make a difference.

    1. Wendy, Thank you so much for reading my blog post on survivor’s guilt and for taking time to comment. I’m sorry you have lost so many in your family to cancer. 9/11 was such a horrible event and really exposed our country as being vulnerable to this kind of attack. I think we somehow felt we were immune to such violence. Like you said, life is fragile isn’t it? Good for you for going after your degree in homeland security. That is certainly commendable! Good luck finishing it up. You are making a difference indeed.

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