Why didn’t I … If only I had … I shoulda: Moving Beyond Guilt at Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress

We get back to living! Attendees pose at the Phoenix Society’s 2012 World Burn Congress

by Kathy Edwards, PhD

When accidents happen, it’s natural to look for someone to blame. Oftentimes, even though it isn’t rational, we end up blaming ourselves. That was the topic a group of burn survivors and health care professionals grappled with at the session on Moving Beyond Guilt at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress this week.

One of the hardest things is learning to accept what has happened. To understand that in many cases it is simply an accident. There isn’t anyone to blame.

One burn survivor, who lost a coworker in an industrial accident, told the story of his journey to overcome the survivor’s guilt he felt when he thought about his accident. He finally came to realize, “if you’ve survived the accident, you have been given a gift. It’s too precious to waste that gift feeling bad, feeling hurt.” He decided to live life to the fullest and help others as a way to honor his coworker.

Often the key to acceptance starts with acknowledging the guilt and realizing that what happened wasn’t your fault.

Mikki Rothbauther, a clinical social worker, explained that when you are struggling with guilt, you are the only one who can forgive yourself. “Guilt is one of the heaviest emotions. It goes hand in hand with forgiveness.”

Guilt usually has no rational basis. One survivor shared the story of carrying guilt for years because his wife was killed in the car accident where he was burned. “For years and years I couldn’t forgive myself for not getting my wife out of the car.” He knew it wasn’t rationale, since he was also badly injured in the accident, but he couldn’t let go of the guilt.

For this survivor, one step in the process of moving beyond guilt was forgiving the driver of the other car. Years later, he arranged a meeting, talked with driver and told him he forgave him. An even hareder step was learning to forgive himself. His daughter pointed out the irony that he could forgive the other driver, but not himself. For this survivor, it was the “aha” moment he needed to finally let go of years of self-doubt and blame.

Barry Bennett, a social worker from Loyola, explains “in these situations you keep looking for a rationalization that will change the ending. But the ending never changes. An accident happened. Someone was burn-injured. Someone may have died. That isn’t going to change.” The key is learning to let go of the search for a rational explanation and coming to accept the things we cannot change.

Another person observed that the family members of the burn survivor often  carry their guilt as a penance to show how sorry they are about what happened. They feel they can’t let go of the guilt because they guilt is what shows their love for the person who was injured and the depth of their sadness about what happened. She suggested that perhaps a better way to show that love is to look for ways to “pay it forward” by forgiving themselves and then finding ways to help others.

As the session came to a close, the support and encouragement of those in the room was palpable. Survivors honored each other’s stories and helped each other along the journey of moving beyond guilt.

Kathy Edwards is a burn survivor and professor in the Department of Communication at Weber State University

The Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress is an annual conference involving burn survivors, health care professionals, firefighters, and anyone affected by a burn injury. The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is the only national nonprofit that provides the tools and resources to help burn survivors get back to living.

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