The House That Survivor’s Guilt Built

by Stephen HeavisideSurvivorJuly 30, 2020View more posts from Stephen Heaviside

Rain was starting to greet the pavement. I was walking alone in Silver Lake, known to most as a sort of “hipster capital” in the east section of Los Angeles. I was trying to find a place that had a good vegetarian sandwich option, as November tumbled into December.

December: my diagnosis month. Ugh. Killing time, I pulled up Facebook on my phone. At the top of my feed, I saw a friend’s name, but the person who typed up the Facebook status was not them. It was, I assumed, a family member. They were informing the world that this Facebook friend was now gone. I could not believe it.

I had met this person at a cancer conference. Sat with them and their oxygen tank and sang songs with them. I had messaged this person as they struggled through horrible days. And yet, cancer taking this person’s life was a horrific and utter shock to me. I suddenly felt stupid. My head and my heart were being pummeled with a million thoughts, memories and emotions careening into each other. I needed windshield wipers for my eyes.

I found a place to grab a vegetarian sandwich and I could barely concentrate. The guy behind the counter asked me if I was ok. I said yes and did not elaborate any further before ordering something that had avocado in it. I sat down and re-read the message. Started feeling nauseous. Anger was now taking the stage, as I kicked myself for not sending more messages when I had the chance. My brain started clawing at every little detail I knew about this person, like I was scavenging for something to hold onto.

I was grieving and I had no idea what to do with this new grief or where to put it. My support system of family and friends are kind and wonderful, but how can I explain to them that I am completely rocked by the death of someone who I hung out with over one weekend and kept in touch with over Facebook? It wouldn’t make sense to them. It couldn’t make sense to them. It barely made sense to me. So I didn’t call or text anyone. I sat with my grief and my avocado sandwich and I cried.

This was the first time I had lost a “cancer friend”. It hit me in ways that other deaths haven’t. I still think about it. Even now, years later, I have a multi-layered cake of guilt about it. You’ll notice that I have not mentioned this person’s name or given any real concrete details because I feel like her family doesn’t need to Google her name and see some sad man from California crying over someone he barely knew. I felt, and still feel, unqualified and unequipped to eulogize her.

I knew that she was a teacher and I thought about how the slow trickle of news of her passing would eventually reach the children she taught or the parents of those children. I thought about how a sibling or parent had to sit down at a laptop and deliver the news. I’m crying right now, thinking about it all over again, as I write this.

Survivor’s guilt started to make a nest in my soul after that night. There’s the guilt of feeling like you should have done more with the time you had available to you with that person. Even if they lived in another state, they were always just a text or message away! Did you really feel like you could just send them jokes or commiserate with them now and then forever?

They had cancer. You knew this. You knew there was a chance that you would never see them again after that conference or that meet up. There’s the guilt of feeling like you have no right to be sad about it, especially if you didn’t know the person very well. Cancer deaths hit hard and they trigger a lot of feelings. It doesn’t take much to send you to the land of survivor’s guilt, but it takes a hell of a lot to climb back out of there.

There’s the guilt that you have been depressed and anxious, but relatively healthy, and have been wasting precious months of your own relatively privileged life and squandering opportunities that other people simply don’t have or will never have again. There’s the guilt of feeling like that person never knew the impact that they had on you. That feeling really loves to make a cameo and make you feel like garbage. The devil on your shoulder whispering “Oh man, it’s a shame you never really had the guts to tell this person you cared about them, huh? What’s the matter? Were you scared it’d sound weird, cheesy, inappropriate or misconstrued? Well, they’re gone now and they’ll never know.”

Life seems unfair, but it’s even shorter and more unfair for other people and sometimes my empathy throws me hurtling into the abyss of self-flagellation. The guilt. Oh, the guilt.

I have made cancer friends and I have lost cancer friends. Even the word “survivor” makes me cringe sometimes now because I have had friends and family members who have not survived this. They are gone. Some of them were younger than me. Some of them never got their dream job. Some of them never found the love of their life. Whenever I feel down about my perceived failures in life, it’s tough to think about these people and not come down with a gigantic wave of survivor’s guilt.

I still have time and chances to travel, fall in love and achieve whatever I set out to do and they do not. I’d like to say that it gets easier. Maybe in some small way, you do learn how to cope with it and you get used to it. But the losses don’t magically stop hurting and the survivor’s guilt pops up every time. Honoring people and remembering moments with them is nice, but it’s hard not to think about what you’ve lost. It’s very hard not to default to regret. It’s just all so damn hard.

Sometimes I think about the friends and family that I’ve lost to cancer as silent cheerleaders. They are rooting for me somewhere and somehow and although they’re gone, I have to advocate for them and make something of this life that they helped me to shape. They would understand me being sad, but they wouldn’t want me to wallow in despair.

They would probably want me to sing songs and send people jokes to cheer them up on their worst days and to live as much life as I can while it’s still possible. Sometimes realizing that I will one day have to mourn even more losses leaves me feeling like life is just an endless parade of things that hurt. But deep down, I know that simply isn’t true.

Life hurts and it inspires, it causes grief and joy, it’s sweet and it’s sour. The people who have disappeared from my life, they all contributed to a story. A story much denser, more complicated and much bigger than me and my own story. I’m lucky that I got a second of their time or got to know them at all.

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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  • Leslie says:

    Thank you, Stephen for being vulnerable and sharing the intensity and often misunderstood complexities of “survivor guilt”

  • Jim says:

    Extremely well put. I can not imagine what it was/is like to deal with survivor guilt. You summed it up perfectly when you said you are lucky to have had at least a second of their time. We should all strive to be grateful for the time we get with anyone.

  • Marloe Esch says:

    Thank you for sharing this. The first time that I lost a “cancer friend,” I was surprised by how it affected me. I have a gift from her in my office. Sometimes I wonder why I torture myself with many of the what if’s that you mentioned, and this daily reminder that I am here and she is not. But I also don’t want to forget.

  • Stef G. says:

    The first cancer friend I lost was someone I followed on Instagram right after I got my diagnosis. We messaged maybe once but I watched her stories and knew if we had the chance to meet we would be friends. She didn’t post for awhile and then posted that she was on hospice and looked like a different person. I knew she was dying. When I saw that post I literally sobbed in my kitchen like I lost my best friend. She inspired me and it felt so unfair that she was robbed of life while I still had the audacity to complain about radiation side effects.

    People who don’t have cancer will (thankfully for them) never understand the complexities of it all. But we all always have one another to fall back on and know that we get it. So thank you. Thank you for reminding us that we are all in this together.

    1. Stephen Heaviside says:

      Thank you, Stef, and thank you for sharing about your friend. That friendship is just as valid as any other friendship. I have cancer friends who I only know via social media and I’d like to think we’ll all hang out and meet eventually (in the post-Covid world whenever that day comes), but those friendships are just as important to me as any others in my life.

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