Why did I walk away? Coping with survivor's guilt

You and your partner respond to a domestic. When you enter the house, you’re flooded with a wave of high-volume complaints from an agitated wife and belligerent husband. You try to quiet them down so you can initially make sense of the situation, but it’s not working.

The wife seems to be responding to you a little, so you decide to separate the couple, giving your partner responsibility for the husband. As you and the wife make your way to another room, you suddenly hear sounds of a struggle and your partner’s panicked voice saying, “No! Don’t do it!”

You react immediately and charge to the other room, but before you can get there, you hear rounds fired. Seconds later you’ve shot and killed the armed husband, but it’s too late. Your partner is lying on the floor with wounds to his chest and head. You radio for help and frantically try to stop the bleeding, but you can’t. It’s too much. The wounds are too severe.

Your mind immediately floods with questions: “Why did I leave the room? If I had been there, I would have seen him reaching for the gun. Why didn’t I pat the guy down? I knew he didn’t seem right. Why didn’t I react quicker when I heard the scuffle? How come I can’t stop this bleeding? Why was it him who got killed? He has young kids. This is MY fault. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME!”

What you’re seeing develop here is a phenomenon called “survivor’s guilt,” a symptom of the post-traumatic stress often experienced by those who survive a high-risk incident in which others are injured or killed.

On the surface, “guilt” refers to the gnawing feeling on the part of the survivor that he or she should have done more to help the victim, or could have taken action to avoid the incident altogether. But beneath that is a deeply conflicted feeling of guilt about feeling happy to be alive—the unsettling internal debate about whether it’s OK to say “I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

“Under the clinical diagnosis of PTSD is a range of emotions including regret, loss, and second-guessing—all of which are tied in with grieving and loss,” said Dr. Bill Lewinski, a renowned specialist in police psychology and Executive Director of the Force Science Research Center.

“Officers who survive an encounter where a partner dies—especially when they blame themselves—regret what they didn’t do, or second-guess what they could have done, should have done, and would wish somehow it had been different,” he said.

This inner torment can manifest in different ways. Survivors can experience overwhelming depression or rage that can interfere with day-to-day activities. They can withdraw and exhibit self-destructive behavior.

“Could they have done something different? Yes. Given the circumstances? Maybe, yes. But when you follow the track of the decision-making down the line, most officers would have proceeded exactly as those officers had,” Lewinski said.

Also, because they are professional rescuers, police officers may feel an exaggerated sense of guilt over their failure to rescue their partner. Their failure to meet the lofty expectations they’ve set for themselves fits with what Lewinski identifies as the single greatest cause of PTSD: feeling powerless.

“Police officers often have hard-coded expectations that, in certain situations, they should act a certain way,” said Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, a nationally recognized psychologist and author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. “Then, when the situation unfolds and they don’t act the way they believe they should have acted, they tend to suffer profound loss of perceived competence and identity.”

What can you do to cope with survivor’s guilt?

• Share your story. Take advantage of your department’s chaplain or psychologist.

• Get back into your routine—turn negative feelings into positive action. Your mind will soon follow where your body takes it.

• Keep healthy. Fresh air and even short walks can go a long way to keep the mind calm. And while fatty foods and alcohol may initially provide an initial boost, their continued effects can bring deeper bouts of depression and lethargy.

• Connect with your support network. Even if you can’t be active, stay connected to people. The phone and email are good, but face-to-face provides the most solace.

• Don’t beat yourself up: You are grieving.

Survivors often describe the plague of thoughts that continually resurface in the aftermath of a traumatic event. For instance, Deputy Mike London of the Box Elder Co. (UT) Sheriff's Dept. nearly lost his life alongside fellow officers at a high-risk call. His shotgun sling snagged on a computer stand when he thought—incorrectly, as it turned out—that colleagues were being fired upon by a suicidal woman.

In fact, the woman had turned the gun on herself. But that didn't stop London agonizing over the incident in the days that followed.

"I second guessed my actions (or lack thereof) to death,” he said. “I knew that the officers were OK, but I also knew that had she been firing at them. I would have still been fiddling with my shotgun while they were sucking up rounds."

The tendency is for officers in such situations to rationalize how they could or should have done more. This leads to obsessively trying to figure out what they could have done to avoid it.

“I felt that this was peculiar as it seems my problem might have been survivor’s guilt,” London said, “even though all of us survived.”

For many survivors, peer criticism can be the most damaging aspect of a traumatic incident.

What can you do to help a fellow officer?

• Contact them. It can be difficult to know what to say to a person in trauma, but your show of support will speak louder than words.

• Listen. Take their lead; when they’re ready to talk, be there to hear it.

• Don’t criticize. They are already beating themselves up. Be open to what they’re saying and withhold judgment. Offer to be an advocate, either at the workplace or between a critical family member.

• Try to hear what the officer needs and provide that, as long as it’s not destructive to the officer (e.g., intense isolation or abusive drinking are discouraged). Offer to help them with food shopping, cleaning or small errands that, to them, can seem overwhelming.

• Keep in contact. The trauma doesn’t end when the commotion dies down. Sometimes the real depression and isolation can set in after the attention dissipates.

According to PoliceOne columnist Dr. Laurence Miller, a Florida-based clinical and forensic psychologist and author of the upcoming book Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement, even when it’s clear that the actions the officer took were correct, the survivor will still wonder how the fact that they escaped unscathed while someone else wasn’t as fortunate will be perceived by their peers.

“Police culture is based very heavily on what other people think,” Miller said. “Police departments can be incredibly supportive and incredibly critical.”

“There is a powerful identification factor,” Miller said. Translation: When something goes bad, there’s a self-protective human tendency to distance ourselves from it, to say, ”What that officer did was unusual or anomalous. That wouldn’t happen to me.”

“The surviving officer already has these tremendous feelings of loss and regret,” he said. “Even if their actions had no bearing on the outcome, he or she is still going to feel bad because somebody went down.”

An officer’s best friend in this situation will be a judgment-free ear. When the officer is ready to talk, a trained professional should be on hand to guide him, using the critical incident debriefing model.

Dr. Miller suggests letting the person explain what happened, using questions like these:

• Where were you when this occurred?

• Who got there first?

• What did you do?

• Did you follow your SOP for handling a call like this?

• What did the other person do?

• What could you have done differently that could have prevented it?

The goal of this approach is to eventually let the officer answer his own questions, and in doing so, hear himself say that there was nothing he could have done to change the outcome.

But even if the officer logically understands that it wasn’t his fault, he will probably still feel bad.

To this, Dr. Miller will respond, “BINGO! Of course you feel bad. The goal of this counseling process is not to make you feel good about a tragedy – if that were the case we’d both be crazy. The purpose is to let you feel as bad as you want, and cry and scream and punch the wall, but not blame yourself, if you didn’t do it.”

The typical recovery timeline for most traumatic disability syndromes (a broad term that includes physical injuries like chronic pain and post-concussion syndrome, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder) can last anywhere from a few weeks to six months, said Dr. Miller.

“In a closely-knit agency where people go through the appropriate mourning rituals, it will take a few weeks for people to get back to their normal functioning,” Dr. Miller said. “But it could months or years to ‘get over it.’”

Dr. Gilmartin said has known people who have dealt with these feelings for many years.

“It can be a very haunting and incapacitating experience for people,” he said. “Any memory can trigger it again – a smell, a sight, a taste. It has the capacity to flash back at you.”

Deputy London, the Utah officer who snagged his firearm at a critical moment, said that he dwelled on the incident for a long time, until he overheard a conversation that helped ease his guilt.

“I could begin to put it behind me,” he said, “when I overheard these same two officers commenting later that they would want me to back them if things got hairy.”

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