Surviving Survivor’s Guilt

I’ve been having a lot of feels lately with all that’s going on with the devestation created by Hurricane Harvey and Irma and the 9/11 remembrance, so I decided to share something pretty heavy. Here goes. 

Empathy is something we, as a society, face daily between the natural disasters, mass violence, vehicle accidents etc. The emotion changes as soon as you are directly involved in a tragedy..and you survive. For me, this feeling is survivor’s guilt.

Four years ago on Monday, September 16, 2013, I was sitting in my cube at work at the Washington Navy Yard, BLDG 197; normally I worked from home on Mondays, but it was my first day back after a two week vacation, so I decided to go in. At 8ish I was about to run to the bathroom when a coworker came over to catch up about my trip. Minutes later, there was a loud bang. And another. Our building had an open atrium in the middle and where we sat on the 5th floor, it wasn’t uncommon to hear loud noises echoing from below, so I didn’t think anything of it immediately. Until I saw my coworkers face and felt him grab my arm and say “run.” That’s when I heard people screaming “active shooter.”

We ran to the closest office and barricaded ourselves along with 8 others. We turned the lights out, stacked boxes in front of the door, all while continuously hearing pop. pop. pop. Was it closer? Was it further away? What now? Do we run? He could be out there. Do we stay put? He could come in here. This wasn’t something any of us had experience with. So we sat. In silence. And listened.

We thought about our families and wondered if they knew. At that time the WNY didn’t allow you to bring your cell phones in the building, so none of us had a phone on us to text loved ones, but luckily one person out of the 10 of us ‘illegally’ brought in his phone that morning, so he passed it around for each of us to send a quick text out.

We booted up the office computer to check the news. Nothing. Refresh. Nothing. Refresh. Nothing. Then we started seeing headlines. “There are Multiple Shooters” “The Shooter is in Police Custody” “The Building is Clear” …it was all confusion transpired from lack of information, we knew we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was false information. So we sat. Wondering if our lives would come to an end that morning. The kind of things that go through your mind at a time like that is overwhelming.

Three and a half hours later, there was a knock at the door accompanied by a man yelling “SWAT.” I’ll never forget that moment of uncertainty. Could this be the shooter impersonating the police? If we say nothing, the police could leave thinking the office was empty. One person peered out of the door and it was in fact the SWAT team. They instructed to put our hands up and they escorted us out in single file.

Once we were out in the open, there was chaos. I knew nothing. I left my purse when we ran, so I had nothing. I was in shock.

We had to stay for police questioning. Another three or so hours. It was hard to remember anything at that point. My mind felt blank.

After finally reuniting with my family that night, I turned on the news for the first time and saw that 12 people had been killed. 12 people were in that same scenario as me this morning who didn’t make it out. 12 people who went to work on a secure naval base and wound up losing their lives to an active shooter. I felt helpless. I felt guilty. It didn’t seem possible to escape these feelings.

Why not me? Why wasn’t I down in the cafeteria getting breakfast near where the shooting began? Why wasn’t I alone in the bathroom only to come out with no idea where to go? I replay that day over and over in my mind on a regular basis. I still haven’t found answers to these questions four years later. Every day I wonder why I survived. Every day I feel guilt for surviving. Every day I think about the people who lost their lives that day.

I think what has helped me to cope most with the guilt is to honor them. To wear a pin every day to work that honors those 12 victims and our WNY family. To think about them and how their lives were taken in a senseless act, but that they will never be forgotten. To tell their story. To hear the stories of other survivors. To live a better life in honor of them. I may have only known most of them in passing, but they are now forever a part of me.

When tragedies like this happen, we see headlines that throw out a number of “victims,” to relay just how devastating the event was. However, living through a tragedy like this makes me realize that those numbers on the headlines are just a fraction of how many people were actually affected. The families of victims, the survivors, the communities etc. all wondering why.

I’ll never know why it wasn’t me that day. But I do know that that day changed my life forever and I’m surviving my feeling of guilt day by day.

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