Talking About Survivor's Guilt Is What Saved Me From It
Let me tell you a tragic story.
Before my first bone marrow transplant, I found that the words of someone who's been through the process were more powerful than those of my doctors. They just stuck. There was more power and credibility to the words that came out of a fellow patient's’ mouth. And about midway through last year, I met a patient who was about to undergo a BMT. He'd been going strong for years after his lymphoma was in remission, but it had come back and this was his last option.
The nurse asked if I could tell him about the procedure. I started talking to him and giving him tips for the procedure. I comforted, consoled and encouraged him when he got scared. I even prayed with his crying family at one point, and continued doing that through the whole transplant procedure where I could.
I'd told him of all the things he had to look out for after the transplant - the possible fevers, rashes, diarrhea and fatigue, amongst other things. I gave him tips on the recovery process, and assured him that he could do it. Despite his shaking, despite his pain, despite the suffering, his eyes were filled with hope for the future. Hope that he could and almost would be normal again. I can still remember his eyes on the eve of his discharge from hospital.
That was the last time I saw him. He died a few weeks later. When I found out, I was shocked. He was suffering, he wasn't done with treatments yet. I knew that and he knew that too. But he'd seemed so positive, so sure he'd make it, and the doctors thought so too… but he didn't.
He was in his 20s, only a few years older than me. He'd only started living. He had a small child, dammit. After that shock, I started asking myself unanswerable questions. What had he done to deserve this? What would happen to his baby? Why him and not me? I felt the pain of sheer and utter loss, the pain of losing someone so close to me. I thought I'd given Frank hope, and then he had it stolen from him.
Why hadn't I done more?
That was what was eating me, on top of the loss of a good friend. The next few weeks, I couldn't bring myself to do anything. I didn't want to read, write, talk to people. All I did day in and day out was browse pointlessly through the internet, not even registering what I was doing.
After a while of soul searching, I saw what was happening to me. Survivor's Guilt: the same regret when you fail someone in a life-or-death situation. Regret that you hadn't done enough, hadn't been there enough. It only adds to the melancholy that is loss. I also realised I was going through depression. The frustration of the ongoing treatment and the medications I was on all contributed to my feeling down, out, and empty.
I didn't want it to stay that way, but it was just so hard to break the pattern of doing nothing and not caring, especially after the world seemed so meaningless and so unfair. When I could finally bring myself to do it I sat down and asked myself, "What next?" It was then that I remembered my own blog post about depression. I looked over that post again. and I took my own advice.
I talked to somebody about it.
That somebody, for me, was my Dad. I told him how I was feeling, and he listened. He didn't know about Frank's death, didn't know about the loss I was going through. But he gave me another perspective of looking at things, and that would mean the world to me.
He assured me that I would help more people in the long run through my being a doctor if I first helped myself. He also convinced me that I'd help others in the short term if I did that, too. I couldn't write or study medicine if I was stuck in hospital for the next few years, right? I agreed.
And that helped me see that I couldn't hurt myself anymore over Frank's death. All I'd done was give him some happy moments in the last days of his life. I'd done all I could do.
That reminded me of a quote from M.A.S.H.:
- "Rule #1 of war [or medicine, or life]: young men die.
- Rule #2: doctors [no-one] can't change rule number 1."
The best way I could honour his life and let him live on was to learn from my experience with him, and help others get through what I went through--to help others get past their losses and failure, to help others turn the pain and anguish that comes with it into something that can help them, and help others in life.
That's what this is about.
Frank reminded me that no one can live forever, that no one always wins in life. He taught me that when we lose someone or something we care about, we will miss them, but once we get past our grief and failure we have a choice on how we deal with it.
Frank's personality, spirit, and impact on this world still live on because of how he changed those around him.
We can either dwell on the past and close ourselves off to others and to opportunities, or we can learn from the mistakes we've made on our journey with someone or to something and use that to not only get over our loss, but also to improve ourselves.
That way we can be more successful, influential and HAPPY human beings. The kind our loved ones would be proud of.
How do you cope with Survivor's Guilt? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo courtesy of Larm Rmah.
Nikhil is an AML survivor, 2 time bone marrow transplant recipient, medical student, founder of a social enterprise and author of his blog, Musings of a Med Student Patient.