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Tips for Veterans to Cope With Survivor's Guilt on Memorial Day

This year, the U.S. will practice Memorial Day on Monday, May 27th. This federal holiday is an opportunity to honor and mourn military personnel who lost their lives serving in the United States Armed Forces.

Naturally, this season can bring up complex emotions for veterans. Survivors may feel a mixture of loss, camaraderie, and shame during the ceremonies. Many feel intense guilt for surviving when their fellow soldiers didn’t. Some even feel they should have done more to protect the fallen. 

What Is Survivor's Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt–sometimes associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)–has numerous psychological and emotional effects. The condition’s primary attribute is guilt, but it can provoke other responses, including detachment and numbness. Moreover, it can happen to anyone who survived a life-threatening situation (including those involved in car accidents, pandemics, etc.), but it is highly prevalent in the military. Many soldiers with survivor’s guilt report symptoms persist even when everyone around them is joyful. Sometimes, they can struggle to feel any emotions at all. 

Researchers think this happens because victims believe they have done something wrong by surviving a tragic event when others didn’t. This phenomenon is often subconscious, meaning the victim can’t tell where their feelings are coming from. 

One common effect of survivor’s guilt is rumination. Victims can wonder why they survived when others died. Many also criticize what they did during the life-threatening event (blaming themselves for what happened) and wonder if they could have done more. 

Memorial Day has great potential for triggering survivor’s guilt. Ceremonies and memorials can bring back intense recollections of deceased comrades. Media coverage and personal reflections can enhance this sensation, bringing traumatic events back to mind.

Tips for Veterans Coping with Survivor's Guilt

Fortunately, if you are dealing with survivor’s guilt, there is hope. Research shows a significant proportion of victims recover from the condition in the first year after the traumatic event. Some people experience PTSD symptoms that last even longer but can still manage their emotions. Here are some tips for coping with survivor’s guilt around Memorial Day.

Acknowledge and validate your emotions

The first step is to normalize the prevalence and experience of survivor’s guilt. It isn’t always rational, but it is a well-known response to trauma. Accept that negative feelings can emerge occasionally (especially around war-related ceremonies). Knowing that sensations of grief, loss, and guilt will probably arise can help you prepare for them and watch them as an observer. 

Share your feelings, memories, and experiences

Talking to other people about what happened during the traumatic event can also help you cope with survivor’s guilt. Open conversations with peers, family members, and therapists are often healing. 

Researchers believe the reason for this might relate to psychological normalization. Talking to others and confronting the reality of what happened can cause the brain to process events differently. Once you face the truth of the situation, it can make it seem more benign.

Engage in Memorial Day activities

Another tip for coping with survivor’s guilt on Memorial Day is participating in local activities. Some options include: 

  • Attending ceremonies: You could participate directly or watch from the sidelines, enjoying the pomp and honor bestowed. 
  • Honor comrades in a personal way: You could also create art or compose music to respect the fallen. Memorializing them in this way makes the experience more personal. 
  • Visiting graves: Paying your respects can help you manage challenging emotions on the day. 
  • Volunteering or donating: Providing resources to veteran-related good causes can help people in similar situations with PTSD, injuries, and other war-related ailments. 

Reconnect with fellow veterans

Reconnecting with fellow veterans can also help you cope with survivor’s guilt. Sharing Memorial Day with people who have gone through a similar experience can create a sense of communal healing. Even if you are not up to meeting with other veterans in person, you could always give them a call or message them on social media.

Practice self-care 

Don’t forget to look after yourself on Memorial Day (and the rest of the year). Prioritizing your well-being can help you work through survivor’s guilt faster. 

Ensure you get plenty of sleep. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help you establish a rhythm.

Eating a high-quality diet and prioritizing whole foods (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains) is also beneficial. These can significantly reduce brain inflammation, improving your overall health. 

Some veterans also like to try relaxation techniques, too. These include: 

  • Deep breathing: Take in breaths for a count of five, then breathe out for a count of five (repeat as many times as is necessary).
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Start by relaxing the muscles in your feet and then work your way up the body until you reach the top of your head.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: Observe your thoughts as they enter your mind without judgment and then allow them to leave. Become more of an observer of your thoughts than an active participant.

You could indulge in your hobbies to take your mind off things. Many veterans enjoy cycling, golf, painting, working on classic cars, and so on. If you aren’t sure what you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to try something new.

Seek professional support 

Finally, you can improve how you cope with survivor’s guilt on Memorial Day with the help of professional resources. One option is to use the literature on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website. It offers a tremendous range of services to assist with PTSD and other forms of trauma. You can also call the VA helpline at 988. 

Support groups are another option. These groups bring together veterans with similar experiences and can empathize with anyone experiencing survivor’s guilt. 

Counseling is an additional option. Many therapists provide their expertise to victims of trauma (such as veterans) to help them through challenging events. 

If you’d like more structured support, Jackson House can help. Our veteran’s program offers around-the-clock care using evidence-based therapies tailored to your unique needs. 


Addressing survivor’s guilt is essential to your overall well-being. Failing to do so can lead to feelings of guilt, numbness, and detachment. 

Anyone experiencing the condition on Memorial Day (or any other time of the year) should seek support. Therapists, the VA, and veterans support groups can all help. 

It’s best to honor Memorial Day in a way that feels meaningful to you. If possible, try to experience the day in a positive way, reflecting on your bravery and that of your fellow soldiers as you sought to protect your country.

If you need additional assistance, don’t hesitate to call Jackson House. Our compassionate team can help you through this challenging time.

About the author

Jackson House

Jackson House

We built Jackson House because we realized there was a critical gap in our healthcare system and many individuals with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems were struggling because of it. While there are many outpatient treatment options and locked, inpatient facilities there was nothing in the middle. Nothing to help people who needed around the clock care but wanted to receive treatment voluntarily, on their own terms. Jackson House is different. We provide clients with the level of care they need in a welcoming environment. When you walk through our doors, we will meet you wherever you’re at and help you on your journey toward feeling better.

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