My survivor’s guilt: Coping with the trauma of loss

I first met Mina Danial in Tahrir Square, following the bloody events of the Battle of the Camel.

 

I believed in him from our first encounter. I had a lot of hopes, and was proud of this much younger comrade, not only because we shared the collective identity of Tahrir, but because we both believed that being Coptic was not what defined our struggle. We believed in justice, freedom and human dignity for everyone. We both fought for the marginalized and we knew this fight was our destiny, the cross we were both happy to bear.

 

I ran into Mina a week before the October 2011 massacre of almost thirty Coptic protesters at Maspero. That was the day he told me the rights of Copts should be seen as an issue of citizenship. We decided that, although we were both against a Coptic movement per se, we would work to mobilize protests demanding citizenship rights. We would both join protests demanding equal rights to places of worship, not as Copts, but as representatives of Tahrir Square and what it stood for. This was the last time I saw Mina alive. 

 

I was supposed to join the march from Shubra to its planned destination at the Maspero television building, that factory of lies that continues to broadcast and spread venom and poison throughout Egypt. Back then I was the field co-ordinator of the Baradei campaign, based in Garden City. Delayed due to a meeting, I couldn’t join the march from Shubra and decided to walk down the corniche and meet them at Maspero.

 

I was rushing to reach the protestors and the air was starting to feel heavy, especially since I read a tweet from the march that they had been met by thugs. Feluccas playing songs and girls dancing to their tunes greeted me as I made my way into a massacre. Bodies were flattened to the ground and tanks were on fire. It was chaos. In just a few minutes the military were chasing us out of the area and into Downtown. A group of us, mainly girls, ran for shelter in the flat where Mina’s socialist group usually met: the flat where I had shared my last conversation with him.

 

I spent that night in the Coptic hospital and the next day with my fellow comrades, trying to convince families to agree to autopsies before receiving the bodies of their loved ones. Without this, no one would be brought to justice for their deaths. The autopsies took place, but nobody was arrested. Mina Danial was on both the list of the accused and the dead at the same time. His grave in 6 October City reads: “Killed by military during a peaceful protest.” Pope Tawadros disagrees. He said recently that Danial’s assailants remain unknown.

 

I wore black for 40 days, only to take it off during the Mohamed Mahmoud epic, where I witnessed freedom fighters achieve glory. Months passed and more heroes fell. I don’t think I had the time to even process what had happened to me that night. All I was aware of was my anger and a great sense of loss and guilt that I had survived. I would wake up from my nightmares telling myself, “If only I was not delayed!”

 

Months passed and I avoided any self-reflection. I failed to detect the subtle trauma, the guilt and the destructive behaviors that paved the way to a full on episode of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in its most terrorizing form, following an assault by state security two years after surviving Maspero. I had a saboteur living in my head and it made sure it was there to stay. This saboteur is called survivor’s guilt.

 

Yes I survived Maspero, but I did so carrying the guilt of living. My destructive behavior reflected my unconscious belief that I did not deserve to be alive and, therefore, that I do not deserve to feel happiness. Anything good, any pleasure or joy or fulfilment and even love caused me painful guilt. The irrational and natural solution for my immense pain was to purposely remove and avoid anything that lead to pleasure.

 

The saboteur took over and sabotaged any chance at this “unworthy” happiness. The ones I loved were hit the hardest as I followed the saboteur. In punishing myself for surviving, I started hurting them. I pushed them away unconsciously as I knew I was not worthy of them and then their reactions proved to me what I had started to hold as firm belief: I was unlovable and unworthy. I undermined my support system and broke what I truly desired just because deep down I believed I deserved no support or even the right to have desires. After all, he died and I survived!

 

Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist who studied survivor’s guilt extensively and has published many studies exploring the phenomenon, argued that although we don’t choose guilt, and we definitely suffer under its effects, there lies in us reasons to hold onto it. When no retribution or closure is in sight, our living hearts become the graveyards of the deceased. Danieli suggested that holding on to the pain is a way of maintaining these internally carried graveyards. Guilt in this context may serve a commemorative function and as an expression of loyalty to the dead.

 

Mina’s final wish was for his body to be carried around Tahrir before it met the dust. His coffin toured the square before it was taken to its final destination. Maybe what Danielli suggests applies here, that in successful mourning, I will forget the dead and thereby commit Mina to oblivion.

 

Danieli also argued that guilt can presuppose the presence of choice and the power to exercise it. Survivor’s guilt can be an unconscious attempt to counteract the feared notion of helplessness. He even profiled those more prone to survivor guilt as those having a greater sense of responsibility towards others in general, which in turn explains their preference of “culpability” over helplessness.

 

A third reason to hold onto guilt according to Danieli is that it can provide us with a sense of belonging to the group or culture that experienced the event and therefore provide a sense of justice and security in relation to the world. Mina survived two major injuries during the 18 days and he finally died in Maspero, not Tahrir. Where he died might not be of significance to many. However, to me it deepened the sorrow and perhaps the guilt towards the group that experienced the massacre, a guilt both Mina and I tried to separate ourselves from in order to struggle beyond the limitations and ideologies of one group.

 

Copts were the targeted group that day and being a Copt that survived meant I was saved by the crucified. The dilemma that has haunted me since is: “Did I deserve to survive and did he deserve to die? Who was the one saved and who was crucified in this scenario? If I was the saved, and him the crucified, then how come he was not resurrected and how come I do not feel free?”

 

I chose to share my personal story because no medical or psychiatric knowledge could have made me immune to this destructive guilt. No knowledge in the world would have shielded me from the trauma that penetrated too deep into my existence. I share because I know there are many out there like me, stuck in the cycle of trauma and guilt, unable to grant themselves the amnesty they grant most of the world daily.

 

I have been told I should slowly introduce self-compassion into my world and it shall be the voice that counters that of the saboteur. Through self-compassion I started seeing the mess I have created, whether for myself or for those I loved the most and hurt the most. I started seeing survival as being given another chance and that it was not my responsibility that he died and I survived, even if my choice would have been for the opposite to happen. I simply had no choice and power that day to stop him from dying or myself from surviving.

But now I am facing another challenge: asking for compassion from those I have hurt. Will I be forgiven and allowed to once again embrace simple joys, pleasures and love? Will they give love a chance, as they too are traumatized? Many questions, with no substantial answers, but definitely a genuine desire and hope to live this second chance, saved and not forsaken, delivered from the evil around and the evil saboteur within through love and compassion.

AD