Life Happens: Survivor’s Guilt, Phantom Grief and the Pursuit of Happiness

We’re under a collective fatigue. A lot has happened the past few months and this is the breaking point. Between the hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, an earthquake, events now called by cities, Charlottesville, Las Vegas, followed by trial by Northern California Fires and Hollywood Harvey and a time line of taking the knee.I felt guilty that I spent two minutes debating the merits of lavender scent laundry detergent versus fresh air scent. It reminded me as kids when we were told, finish eating there are starving children in the world. Here I am picking a laundry scent when there are people without a place to live. Sure, there are relief efforts for the natural disasters, there is social discourse on events, but that seems to do little to reign in the gamut of emotion from the anxiety, doom, empathy, compassion and survivor’s guilt. With information, pictures, videos and stories so available today, there is a new thing to add to the list, something that is becoming more prevalent, phantom grief.

There was a mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky over 25 years ago. I drove to work, I knew there was something wrong because there were so many ambulances. By the time I got to  the office, I learned there was an active shooter at Standard Gravure, one of the guys in the office was on the phone with his wife. The next day, I couldn’t speak, I had no voice. No, this wasn’t shocking or grief, a group of us went to Cincinnati that night for a Rolling Stones concert. I lost my voice during the opening act, Living Color, my guitar hero Vernon Reid was on stage, singing Open Letter to a Landlord. Three days later, I was a greeter at the Cathedral of the Assumption for a memorial service. Something almost unbelievable had happened and yet life went on. Five friends went on a road trip to River Front Stadium and watch the Rolling Stones perform Gimme Shelter from row 11, floor seats.

Now, in a world of political correctness and optics, I feel the need to stress, oh yes I was impacted and felt deeply. I was horrified at the media presence at the memorial service and tried to protect a few grievers from photo ops and sound bites. I am thankful a few days before, I was with good friends on a once in a lifetime adventure. The desire to show compassion and empathy can lapse into the dark side of fantom grief. It requires us to stay in a hyper-vigilant state of mourning, any good time is guilt ridden. The grief cycle is denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As we process grief and we may spiral back and forth between the stages before we emerge to acceptance. With phantom grief, nothing is really a loss. We will stay in anger, bargaining and depression because there is nothing to process. We are left with primarily anger and depression that plays out in all kinds of crazy.

If you find yourself or those around you anxious, overwhelmed and slipping to the dark-side. Consider it could be phantom grief; you are not in immediate danger, you do not have a loss, it’s ok to be happy.  I once heard a response to eat all your food, there are starving people in the world. This kid responded, I am thankful we have food, I will trick or treat for UNICEFF, but  my eating or not eating isn’t going to stop people from starving. Use kid logic now as inoculation against phantom grief. Have gratitude for what you have and compassion for those in need. Go spend time with friends and family and enjoy life.

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