The Wrong One Died: Face-to-Face with Survivor’s Guilt

As I prepared to start my graduate school counseling studies, I began reading psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s book, “Love’s Executioner.” The book is a compilation of patient case studies, which provides a fascinating peek under the hood for a future therapist. Since I’m naturally curious about people and what makes us tick, Yalom’s book was hard to put down.

It was summer, and I was visiting my parents in Northcentral Wisconsin. The weather was sublime, so I spent time reading on the front porch, back deck, and sitting under a tree at the lake. But then, I turned the page to Chapter 4 and froze. I no longer heard the birds chirping or felt the breeze rustle my hair. The title of Chapter 4 jumped off the page and sucker-punched me squarely on the jaw. The title jumped off the page and threw me utterly off-balance. There, at the top of page 118, Yalom had written: The Wrong One Died.

My heart raced. Long-suppressed thoughts and feelings surfaced, flooding my brain with cortisol. I gasped for air. After a few deep breaths, I closed the book and put it on my lap. This wonderfully enlightening and empowering book suddenly turned ominous. I knew this story all too well even before I read it in this book.

A few days passed before I summoned the courage to pick up the book again. I had to read this chapter, even though I knew it would open wounds I had never acknowledged. So, I thumbed through the pages to Chapter 4 and began to read about “Penny.” Penny had lost her nine-year-old daughter Chrissie to leukemia. The onslaught of grief that ensued was often debilitating. To cope with her loss, Penny exalted Chrissie to the status of sainthood. Chrissie became the ideal child, the essence of everything good.

But Penny also had two sons. Sadly, they were metaphorically left by the roadside when Chrissie got sick. Penny became emotionally distant and neglectful. She failed to comfort her boys when their sister died. But even worse, she came to see her sons as bad seeds. In her eyes, they were nothing but trouble. Before long, Penny’s self-fulfilling prophecy for her sons became realized. They got into trouble time and again. And so, a vicious cycle was born. This emerging pattern proved to Penny she was right. Her daughter is the one who deserved to live. Chrissie would make her mother proud. So, Penny believed with every fiber of her being that yes, the wrong one died.

Why has this story impacted me so profoundly? Semblance.

I was five years old when my little brother Dave died. He suffered from something called Hirschsprung’s disease. I couldn’t understand why he cried so often, so I did whatever I could to make him happy. To this day, I can’t stand to hear a baby cry. Dave was nine months old when his condition worsened. Hearing his screams was pure anguish for me as it must have been for my parents. Then one day, my mom and dad took Dave to the hospital. I never saw him again. My parents said they told me Dave went to heaven and that I replied, “I know. I saw the angels come to get him.” Just thinking about that prescient acknowledgment breaks my heart. But, the five-year-old me had no concept of death. He didn’t understand why Dave had vanished from his life.

Me and Dave enjoy a summer day about three months before he died.

My mom was pregnant at the time but went into labor prematurely. Peter lived for a day but wasn’t real to me because I never saw him. There’s not even a picture of Peter. But he was real. He did exist, albeit for mere hours. How does a young couple cope with losing two children in a span of ten weeks? Thankfully, they had good mothers who supported them and helped care for me while they grieved. But, in those days, there was no grief counseling. There was no reverence for the profound feelings unleashed by loss. People were expected to pick up the pieces and move on. And, that’s what my parents did.

Nonetheless, they were both enveloped in guilt. My mom blamed herself for Peter’s death. My dad thought, and maybe still thinks, he should have been able to save Dave’s life somehow. If only he had done this or that, or made more money, or was smarter, or insisted on finding a specialist. Eventually, his guilt morphed into anger. I understand why he was angry. It’s a common reaction, the only feeling that is acceptable for too many men. My dad felt helpless. Men are conditioned to believe we are the protectors. We’re strong and invulnerable and can save our children from doom. The problem is that belief is nothing more than a myth.

And, like Penny, my dad’s anger and guilt pushed him away from me, his only surviving child. Sometimes he would lash out at my typically stupid, immature kid behavior. He was indignant that I lacked athletic talent and desire. I often felt that I was nothing but a skinny, insignificant disappointment. So, at some point, I concluded that my dad would be happier if Dave had lived and I had died. Maybe Dave wouldn’t be a screw-up, like me. Perhaps he would have been a perfect son, an All-American boy. Maybe… the wrong one died.

I don’t know how or why I came to this conclusion. I’m not sure if my dad ever said or even intimated that he would choose Dave over me. Anger makes people say and do terrible things, but I sure hope this isn’t the case. Maybe I simply made this assumption on my own. My feelings likely had something to do with the phenomenon that is survivor’s guilt. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that when I read those words in Irv Yalom’s book, I was flooded with intense sadness and hurt. The wounds of my childhood had been ripped open in an instant by four words in a book.

But, as I read the story of Penny, I was heartened to learn that Dr. Yalom helped her recognize and reconcile the trajectory her life had veered. At long last, she processed her grief, made amends with her sons, and embarked on a painful but transformative journey of healing for herself and her family. Like Penny, I, too, had help working through my feelings of unprocessed loss, sadness, shame, hurt, and guilt. I’ve learned to care for my inner child, affirm his feelings, and accept that he has weathered many volatile storms to become a good man. I might even go out on a limb to say I think my dad is proud of the person this little boy has become.

What led me to believe the wrong one died might be a question without an answer. And, that’s okay. I’m no longer haunted by what I see as an irrational thought. But, I still think about those feelings and mourn what could have been for my brothers, me, and our parents. I certainly don’t understand why things happen the way they do. But, I do know this: my pain has fueled my quest to become a counselor. Now that I’ve untangled the muddled web of anguish in my mind, like Irv Yalom, I want to help others process their life stories.

Old wounds can heal, even though they sometimes leave scars. But, I choose not to perceive scars as blemishes. Instead, I see the scars we’ve acquired during our lives as reminders of the pain we’ve endured. They’re proof that healing is indeed possible.

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