Survivor Guilt: condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not… -Livestrong.com
A couple of close friends, that I met through cancer circumstances, have passed away in the past year, and it reminded me of a topic that I have been asked about fairly often. People ask me “Do you have ‘survivor guilt’ and how do you deal with it?”
My original diagnosis came when I was in high school as a naïve athletic teen. The only person that I had ever lost in my life was my grandfather, who died from lung cancer that had been caused by asbestos (mesothelioma) when I was 8. During his year of being sick, I had been sheltered but I was there on Thanksgiving Day when he took his last breath on a hospital bed in his living room. My experiences with cancer and death were pretty limited.
Over the past 18 years since that diagnosis, sickness and death have often been front and center in my life. There have been many amazing friends that have come and gone. I keep a mirror with a border of little built-in frames filled with all of their pictures. It is getting cramped and I really hate adding pictures. A part of me tries not to look at their faces too much and some days bring more hurt than others. Other times when I am driving a song will come on that reminds me of someone and I get goosebumps or a tear in my eye. A lot of times it makes me smile though like they are saying “hi” and I remember beautiful memories and smiles.
My life is enriched because of each one of them. That is why I do not shy away from becoming closer to people who may not be doing well. If anything I am more drawn to being there for them when others may not. Death does not scare me (usually). I have come so close myself that I have lost count of how many times. Of course death can really suck but sometimes sickness and death are more comfortable topics for me to discuss than many others. They make up the realness and reality of life, especially my life. It is why I led a grief and loss group at a previous job and was the go-to person for presentations around these subjects in graduate school. Death is something that presents itself at my current job on a pediatric floor at a hospital.
I certainly do not understand why I am still here when many of my friends are not, but I choose not to feel “survivor guilt” for the most part. How I deal with the grief is trying my best to live my life in honor of all of my friends and family and use this “extra time” for the better. I try to do the things that they did not live to see and help others in their memory. I keep persevering and surviving because that is what they would want. Inspirational speaking has even taken me overseas and become a way that I can touch and connect with others in their honor. Depending on my mood, painting, writing poetry and listening to music has also given me an outlet to process feelings that come with the losses.
One thing I will never forget that my friend Randi told me in her last couple days through her oxygen mask, “Rachel-you must keep fighting here on Earth and I’ll keep fighting in Heaven”. I try my best to keep my promise to her…
Rachel Lozano was diagnosed with Askin’s Tumor (sarcoma) on her spine at 15. The cancer recurred when she was 18 and 19 years. By the third time, she statistically was given a 0% chance of living past a few months as the tumor was between her heart, lung and spine and no one had ever survived a relapse of Askin’s Tumor following a stem cell transplant. Through many miracles, blessings and amazing medical staff along the way, she has had no sign of cancer for about 12 years. The past couple of years have brought more long-term medical challenges including the removal of her entire right lung and many complications since that surgery. Rachel has been married for 8 years and obtained degrees in interior design, art, and a Masters in Art Therapy and Counseling. She leads a very full life as an art therapist (at a pediatric hospital where she was treated), international inspirational speaker, writer/blogger and artist. She is obsessed with life and enjoys helping others, traveling, working out and being with family and friends. Rachel was awarded Glamour magazine’s Woman of Your Year in 2008. Her speaker page can be found on Facebook at Rachel Lozano: Inspirational Speaker and blog at Obsessedwithlife.com.