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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Coping with Survivor's Guilt

By Kristen Carter

Honor friends who have passed in a special way. Find a peaceful spot in nature, gaze into the distance, and speak with them.

Dear Kristen, As someone living with MBC, it's hard not to go down rabbit holes, especially as we are seeing a lot of our MBC friends passing away. How do you manage survivor's guilt? -Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Survivor's guilt is real and we all experience it in different ways. For some it is internalized with the stark reality that cancer can take what is most precious to us: our lives. It’s a sobering reminder each time we are faced with the next line of treatment. We see ourselves in others and try to make sense of what that means not only for the people we’ve lost and their loved ones, but what will that mean for me? My loved ones? My family?

I have lost two friends to breast cancer since being diagnosed four years ago. Both were lovely women doing wonderful things in the world, and gone too soon. My heart was broken both times.

I did what I would want them to do if our roles were reversed: I dedicated myself even more to living my own life to the absolute fullest. I think being alive is such a gift, and that those who pass wish for us to make the most of every moment we are here, through everything we experience.

This brings me to what I think happens to us and our loved ones when we transition from this life.

When I was ten years old, I caught a glimpse of “the other side,” when I almost died touching a neon motel sign: I was a completely different being, asking the other beings in a sort of middle space, “Is it time for me to come back already?” And their clear answer was, “Oops, nope, too soon!” I could see a light place behind them, but they were hustling me back to my body. The sign shattered and I woke up in the grass – alive, but with a memory I’ll never forget.

Regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation, I believe the people who have passed before us are okay, safe, and watching over us. They can be with us in ways they couldn’t have when they were here with us. They are well and they wish us well.

I’ve found that paying homage to the friends we lose to breast cancer can help make sense of the often-intense emotion of survivors’ guilt. Here are some ideas you might try if you’d like to honor your late friends in a special way:

  • Light candles in their honor. I do this in memory of my mom, using a pretty candle holder she used to love.

  • Pray/speak to them on a regular basis.

  • If you keep an altar of any kind for meditation or prayer, add something of theirs or something that represents them, like a photo or personal item.

  • Speak to them in nature.

  • Enjoy their favorite food.

  • Refer to them often in your gratitude journal, if you keep one.

  • Wish them well in their new form/place.

  • Do volunteer work for or make a donation to a cause that mattered to them.

  • Do something loving for their families, particularly around days that might be hard, like their birthdays, the holidays, or the anniversary of their passing.

It is our responsibility to make sure we do what we came here to do, even if we are still figuring out our purpose: Learn, grow, love and experience challenges the great human experience provides us.

I do my best to live this way and to send gratitude and love to the people who pass. That’s how I manage survivor’s guilt.

I’d love to hear how this resonates with you; please write back.

xo Kristen

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