The Blind Side of Gratitude

Have you ever experienced a hardship but then felt wrong for being “sorry for yourself” because others suffered worse? This is what we call survivor’s guilt, and it’s a common emotion for those involved in a tragedy or natural disaster.

Our home flooded in August of 2016 with thousands of other people and families. We had also moved to Baton Rouge ten days before the rain started, and we were first time home owners. Our rude welcome to Louisiana is just one of the many jaw dropping stories I’ve heard about people’s experiences with the flood. Being stuck on a bridge for three days - waking up to two feet of water in the bedroom - swimming to land with the family dog raised above their head - everybody seemed to have a more unimaginable tale than the next.

But what I found after the flood, as the city and country rallied to support the many people in need, was an interesting emotional response from the survivors. Not uncommonly, I would ask someone about their experience, and they would relate, factually but without emotion, a heartbreaking story of loss (e.g. “we flooded six feet, lost both of our cars, and didn’t have insurance”). But then they’d finish their story with a statement of seemingly out of place gratitude, “...but other people had it a lot worse.”

I know what it’s like to sit in the tension of feeling the grief of loss and survivor’s guilt; my wife and I only flooded a few inches and had insurance. So, truthfully, many people had suffered much more than us. But the grief we were experiencing was real, too. Trying to repair your new home in a city where you’re still a stranger is tough. The reality is, one person’s pain does not invalidate another person’s suffering.

I’m convinced that many of those who would finish their flood story with “but others have had it worse,” were struggling to admit to themselves how much grief they were experiencing. And that’s understandable - while you can experience both, it’s easier to feel grateful rather than grieved. Here, I’m speaking about the people that didn’t allow themselves to truly process their pain. Taking those painful emotions and packaging them into a box with thankfulness written on it doesn’t make the pain go away. Storing it away in a corner of your brain that you won’t stumble across just allows the grief to fester. And like mold in the walls, unresolved, ungrieved pain can grow into more significant problems like restlessness, depression, panic attacks, unexplainable anger, lowered immunity, and more.

Thankfulness is an excellent cultural value in the Southeast. We try to remind ourselves of our blessings and not take things for granted. But even positive values and behaviors can sometimes be an avoidance strategy of dealing with our emotional problems. It’s not just with the flood that people will end a painful story with a similar comment of comparative gratitude. I’ve heard abused wives say that their pain isn’t the worst out there; I’ve seen victims of interpersonal betrayal try and force a silver lining; I’ve seen parents with special needs children find it difficult to admit that their child can be exhausting. All of us can find it difficult to admit to our pain, sometimes.

Obviously, if you’ve said something like this when speaking about a hardship, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in denial. But if you’re wondering if you have been avoiding dealing with some painful emotions, use this as a litmus test. Ask yourself, “If someone I cared about went through what I experienced, would I expect them to feel a lot of painful emotions?” If the answer is “yes”, but you didn’t seem to be emotionally affected by the difficult event, you may have some unresolved grief. Consider making an appointment with one of us at The Well Clinic; we would be honored to walk with you into that difficult space.