Survivor’s Guilt

“Whoa. This is a real thing,” I thought to myself when I finally realized where my brain was going.

We had been home from the hospital for a month when thoughts of guilt, shame and suppressing my own joy slowly began creeping in. It wasn’t because I wasn’t happy to be home with my healthy (cancer) kid. Oh no, I was elated to be home with my child away from what imprisoned us for months upon months. I just could not figure out what was causing me to feel guilty in sharing and showing my joy.

Then it hit me.

How many of the warrior families we met went home without their child in the last couple of months? How many are still enslaved to the hospital life? How many are just beginning their journey with a very long road in front of them? My heart was still with them - grieving with them; confused with them; angry, sad, scared with them. My heart was still with the strangers who quickly became family, even more than my real family. I was in their shoes. I was walking their journeys beside them. Their pain quickly became my pain. Why should I be celebrating our health when they went home with empty arms? Why should I be sharing good days when they are still sitting in the sterile hospital rooms? Why should I exclaim we beat cancer when they were just starting their cancer journey?

As silly as it sounds to have your own joy stifled because of what another person is going through, the feeling is so real due to the connections one makes while on these difficult journeys. I bawled. I screamed. I got mad. I let out so many emotions so I could begin to heal. I then began to focus on being so dang grateful for the relationships we made along the way. Without them, I honestly don’t know how I would have survived the hell we were put through.

In being grateful comes light that fills in the spaces of darkness created by this survivor’s guilt. The light spreads throughout the darkness, lifting spirits and reminding me that it is ok to celebrate where we are. I know the family we created in those hospital rooms would want to see us flourishing, even if they aren’t.

The willow tree planted in Tabitha's backyard

It wasn’t quite enough to have that mental picture of the light flowing through me, so we planted a beautiful weeping willow in the most perfect spot in our backyard. It sits on top of the hill overlooking the refuge prairie and river. There is something so breathtaking about a willow tree—it almost looks as if the tree is gracefully crying with its branches, something we have done many times with the multiple families on our journey. It’s a reminder of every child we have met, every child who gained their wings; every child who is still fighting, every child who is also at home flourishing, and for the future children who will face big battles.

Even though I may not reach out to each family every time I see this tree, I hope they know that I say a prayer for every single one of them. It’s my way of smothering the survivor’s guilt that tries to continually creep in, a way to remember and think of every single child and family who has crossed paths with us. It won’t always take away the pain that comes with the guilt, but it’s a gentle reminder that it is okay to gracefully cry.

Written by Tabitha Radermacher 
Tabitha is mom to two children, Bella and Ian. Bella was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, liver cancer, in April 2017. Tabitha and her husband, Travis, live in Ortonville, Minnesota. Learn more about Bella's story.

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