Survivor’s Guilt

This topic been on my mind lately, particularly in the aftermath of the events at Sandy Hook Elementary.  In my initial post, I made a plea to my fellow writers and readers on how to address such tragedies and find ways to help.   This is part of that discussion:  How does anyone—child or adult—handle being the one that lived?

It makes me think of Harry Potter.  This is a boy whose family was slaughtered, but he some how made it out alive and spent the next seven years trying to understand why.  That’s a long, heavy journey for a kid.  Fortunately, he had friends and a few wise wizards in his corner to help out.  But what about the rest of us?  The muggles who have no wizards, only TV, doctors and medication to replace the magic?

Well, one thing we do have, and Harry had too, are books.  Books are an amazing go-to in a time of unspeakable difficulty because they make no demands.  “Here,” the book says, “you are not alone.”  And so, I decided to tiny survey of books that deal with survivor’s guilt, thinking it might be helpful to the children of Sandy Hook, or anywhere else in the world where someone has had to live with living.

What I came up with, unfortunately, are tons of books that set the scene for survivor’s guilt, but few that actually deal with the aftermath.  Harry Potter is interesting in that it allows for the echoes and repercussions to last for years.  Which seems realistic to me.  The others—from Hunger Games to Lord of the Flies and the tragic A Separate Peace (once required reading in high schools, but no longer I hear) often have a quick wrap up, a ceremonial flower on the grave, a thoughtful monologue from an older narrator, and all is laid to rest. 

There were two exceptions, however.  One for young adults, the other middle grade. (SPOILER ALERT:  While these synopsis don’t give away the heart of the story, if you want to come at it with a clean slate, read the titles and skip the paragraph beneath them. But I promise it won’t ruin the reading experience!) 

 
  

Year of the Beasts, by Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell.  This is a book that rips out the heart of the heroine.  Or rather, anti-heroine.  It begins easily enough, with a circus coming to town.  Seemingly unrelated,the event and the aftermath unravel before our eyes simultaneously.  The outer story is told in prose, the inner journey is depicted in alternating black-and-white graphic novel chapters that are intriguingly mysterious.  It’s a striking way to interweave plot and emotion to depict the knotted ball of confusion left behind when someone dies and someone else lives. 

 

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson.  If you grew up in the ’70s like I did, you read this book.  If you are a millenial, you might have seen the movie.  As much as Bridge is about friendship and bullies and make believe places, it is also very literally about surviving childhood.  The death in this book was inspired by (but not a literal retelling of) a real event.  Katherine Paterson’s son’s best friend was struck by lightning while on a trip to the beach and this book serves as testament and homage to the pain of sudden loss, and the aftermath.  Sounds too heavy?  Maybe you have to be a ten-year-old to handle it, but it’s worth a read.

One thing both books share is the hard truth that there are no answers.  Time and self-forgiveness, forgiveness of others are addressed, touched upon, but no one can tell you how to feel or what to do next.  Grief must be managed day by day.  It’s a journey that never really ends, but it doesn’t have to be taken alone.