Journal of Traumatic Stress Disorders & TreatmentISSN: 2324-8947

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Living a Life That Should Not Be Lived: A Qualitative Analysis of the Experience of Survivor Guilt

‘Survivor guilt’ is a commonly used term in clinical settings and popular culture; however the phenomenon has largely been neglected in trauma-related research. There is a scarcity of research relating to the phenomenology and underlying mechanisms of survivor guilt, and no published studies to date that investigate treatment options. This study aimed to explore the lived experience of how individuals interpreted and made sense of surviving when others had died, with a view to gain a better understanding of survivor guilt. Six participants who had survived a traumatic event where others had died were interviewed. Through interpretative phenomenological analysis, a theoretical model was derived from the data, showing participants in an on-going dynamic of making sense of why they survived. Central to this model was persistent guilt about surviving and a sense of disentitlement to life, driving internal processes associated with sense-making and external processes associated with making amends. Examples from the interviews illustrate each component of the model. The results are discussed in light of existing literature on guilt, and implications for clinical interventions.

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