Survivor guilt (sometimes called survivor syndrome) is a term that describes feelings of guilt that result from a person believing they have done something wrong by surviving a tragic event which other people did not survive. Survivor guilt is not uncommon among survivors of large-scale events like terrorist acts, war, and natural disasters, but it can also work its way into very personal tragedies, affecting the friends and family of those who died by suicide, for example.
There are countless destructive incidents that plague our world and plenty of stories of someone who was supposed to be on that flight or in that building but wasn’t. Sometimes those survivors carry around a tremendous amount of guilt on top of the grief as they continue to live while others perished, and harboring these feelings can lead to alienation or worse.
This week we read the story of Noah in Parshat Noach. This second section of text in the entire Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly moves us through the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our narrative history takes off.
Back to Noah, there is an interesting “blip” in Noah’s character in Parshat Noach. The flood is over, Noah and his sons come off the boat, and Noah finds his family alone in the world. The first thing Noah does after they disembark is to plant a vineyard. Chapter 9, verses 20-25 describe his subsequent behavior as a drunken stupor full of acts of impropriety. Apparently, Noah and his sons find themselves needing to cope with their loneliness, and they turn to a vice to get them through. The sages imagine that Noah was overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a destroyed world. This may have been mixed with feelings of isolation and simultaneously feelings of guilt that so many perished while he survived.
When we find ourselves in Noah’s position, feeling alone, angry, or guilty about our own life circumstances, it’s helpful to have coping mechanisms in place ahead of time. It’s challenging to push through a traumatic experience, but finding healthy ways to cope with our emotions is essential.
As a personal note, know that my door and inbox are always open. It’s our job as a community, and as a community, we are always here to support one another. That’s how we survive.