Survivor’s Guilt and the Maui Fires – It could have been me. Why wasn’t it me?  How can I help?

Survivor’s guilt can hit anyone, in many situations. The Maui Fires are especially distressing as so many lives, homes and businesses have been affected in a high-profile area that is especially dear to people around the world. Survivor’s guilt can also hit those who simply see the graphic media images and hear the cries of people posting their distress. We feel what it’s like to be right there and think, It could have been me. Why wasn’t it me? I have to help!

So here’s the thing. Survivor’s guilt doesn’t help anyone. 

Guilt is a healthy emotional response when you’ve done something wrong. But you did nothing wrong by being somewhere else when the Maui fires happened. You are not to blame for the fires, or for living when others died. You are not wrong to feel relief that it wasn’t you or that your house and loved ones are safe.  When you haven’t done anything wrong, guilt is a waste of emotional energy. 

Survivor’s guilt may also be masking deeper feelings of fear or sadness. 

Speaking directly to those on Maui: if you weren’t in one of the Maui fires and if your home is intact, take a breath and feel relief. Relief is the appropriate response when you avert danger. Be glad it wasn’t you. Please don’t feel guilty that it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have sympathy for those who are suffering or won’t help them. Counting your blessings doesn’t mean that you don’t understand how devastating the loss is for others and that those affected need comfort and help. You will be able to offer that help more effectively from a place of fullness and empowerment. 

Layers of Survivor’s Guilt

If you have lost a home, loved ones, a pet in the Maui fires – you are already traumatized enough. It wasn’t your time to die. (That day will come, for all of us, eventually.) Your deceased loved ones wouldn’t want you to feel guilty. They’d want you to take care of yourself and recover as best you can.

There are lifeguards who have pulled bodies out of the surf and police officers who have found bodies in burned cars. There are family members who weren’t home the day their house burned to the ground. They realize that it might have been them, and it wasn’t. The refrain in their mind is, It could have been me. Why wasn’t it me? It’s normal to have such thoughts, but it’s not helpful. 

Then there’s the vicarious layer of survivor’s guilt experienced by people anywhere around the world. Images available on every news channel and social media outlet are often so graphic and vivid that you feel like you were there. You can imagine the smoke and the heat. You imagine the horror as if it was happening to you, now. But please remember, it’s not happening to you now.

How do you remain sensitive without getting overrun by everyone else’s distress? The immediate answer is to take control of your media intake. 

Watching sensational, horrendous images of the Maui fire damage and hearing people cry in anguish can re-trigger old trauma of your own or create new trauma. This doesn’t help the fire victims, and it doesn’t help you. 

You know the damage was awful. You also know that the news and many social media outlets sell ads by keeping people engaged. And they do that with the most sensational, graphic and emotion-laden stories and images. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Turn off the TV and get off your phone for a while. Then return when you are feeling replenished again and look for ways to help.

I can tell you that there are scenes on Maui, even a few feet from the worst burn images, of living green. There is a lot of love here, and people helping, and things going right. Don’t ignore the sadness and need for assistance on Maui – and continue to help after the media turns it’s focus elsewhere – but don’t only focus on the distress. 

If you have experienced a fire or a natural disaster, watching or hearing about the Maui Fires might re-trigger your own trauma. Please talk yourself off the ledge  to realize that this is not you, now.  You’re not helping the fire victims or the current survivors by traumatizing yourself with this imagining. Do what you can to calm your nervous system and ground yourself in the present moment. From this place, your are then in a position to offer listening, or guidance, or insights to people who are going through this loss and distress now. From that place of calm, you will find creative ways to help.

Listening can be the greatest service

You will be of the greatest service to someone in distress if you are well-rested, well-fed, and calm. If you aren’t in distress about this crisis – or any crisis – you have energetic space to listen. 

Listening is the first step to any conscious response. Sometimes that’s the only thing that’s needed. Your listening can provide a field for people to sort through their own thoughts and feelings. You can say, “I hear that you’re worried about X” without knowing how to fix the situation. Simply acknowledging their distress or worry without needing it to change may be the biggest gift. 

Maybe you hear a subtle need expressed and you can help with that, “I hear exhaustion in your voice. Could you take a nap now?” or “What can I do to help you take a nap?”  

Do you see how jumping in to “help” when loaded with angst is counterproductive?  If you are exhausted or depressed or incapacitated by survivor’s guilt or unprocessed trauma from your own past, you aren’t able to listen now. If you can’t hear what someone is asking for because or your own worry or need, your response will be from your ideas; you may miss the mark entirely and may even add to their distress. Balance yourself first. 

If you are far away from Maui and don’t know anyone here, we appreciate your empathy, but prefer your sympathy. We don’t want anyone else to be distressed. We want healing and relief. We want repair and help. Please contribute to the healing by taking care of yourself in the simple ways I describe below.

I went to the main survivor’s shelter the day after the biggest fires. The displaced people I spoke with had their immediate needs of food and shelter met but there was plenty of anxious dis-ease. It felt like there were more volunteers wandering around distressed and wanting to do something, than displaced people. Many volunteers had the task of managing the well-meaning, distressed people who came to help!  The volunteers’ feelings of empathic distress and survivor’s guilt were adding to the problem and they were unable to read the room.

I approached a lifeguard to see if he might be willing to release some of his angst. He was wound up, ready for action and it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to “let down” there. My willingness to help was not in line with any readiness to receive help at that moment. So I took myself out of there, ready to be of service later, when and if needed. 

Here’s how to calm and rebalance yourself

The goal is to come into the present moment, into your body. 

  • First, take some slow breaths. Count to 4 as you inhale slowly. Count to 5 as you exhale. Then gradually either slow the counting or extend the count (to 8/10, etc.)  
  • If you can, go outside and stand on the earth; look at the sky.
  • Put your hands in some soil, smell a flower or a plant. 
  • Pet a fur buddy. 
  • Hug someone.  
  • Ground into your body, in this moment that you’re reading a post and not directly in crisis.
  • Take a bath; take a shower; brush your hair slowly. 
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Meditate
  • Get some aerobic exercise
  • Go for a walk
  • Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a while
  • Tell your mom (or dad, or child, or partner) that you love them. 

Do a variety of these thing throughout the day.  Other things that can help are massage, connected sex, and cooking and eating a healthy meal – especially sharing that meal with someone else.

Turn off your phone for a while, unplug from the media, and fill your heart with the good people and things in your life. When you are full and your heart is open, you will recognize new ways to be of service. 

Denise LaBarre has lived and worked Upcountry Maui for 3+ decades.

This is a special article for Maui Healer about the Maui Fires and Survivor’s Guilt

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