An image can trigger the survivor’s guilt; it also can be a video, a sound, or even a person. Just like the trauma is not a uniform experience, what triggers trauma is different for everyone as well.
Survivor’s guilt is a psychological phenomenon that affects people who have survived a life-threatening event. A person who experiences this is bound to feel self-guilt, believing that they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not.
This feeling of guilt does not discriminate; it plagues people across the world, including the Muslim community. Muslim parents suffer from survivor’s guilt because of the trauma they witnessed back home.
They witnessed violence, war; saw their homes and lives uprooted and destroyed. They built their lives here, but that does not mean they have forgotten. Our parents still keep up with the news. They still call family, read anything they can.
The violence our parents went through is still a reality for people today. Even when our parents are years, even decades removed from their trauma, we can’t escape the reality that so many Muslims in MENA/SWANA countries are living in.
The media floods our homes with videos of families running from gunfire and explosions. Images of children, bloodied and buried under rubble, imprinted in our minds. We hear their cries for help and watch helplessly thousands of miles away, so far removed from their home.
As children who have witnessed how survivor’s guilt has taken a toll on our parents, it is ignorant for us to dismiss our parent’s trauma by offering up solutions when they never healed in the first place.
Suddenly our parents are brought back into the wild of their grief. The guilt of leaving those behind decades ago combined with the guilt of Muslims suffering now. Our parents are left grappling with these emotions and questions. Why me? Why did I make it out? Do I even deserve to be alive?
For the majority of our parents, they struggle with these feelings because they never overcame their trauma, to begin with. This trauma is only exacerbated when our parents witness the suffering of Muslims now.
Individuals suffering from survivor’s guilt can exhibit various symptoms including helplessness, mood swings, outbursts, insomnia, headaches, nausea, and lack of motivation, and even suicide.
Most commonly, the survivor will dwell on the events that took place. They will think of what they could have done differently. How if they had done something they might have been able to prevent that from happening.
However, we need to realize that what happened was entirely out of our control. We must recognize there was nothing we could have done and even if we had tried to do something, it may have not been enough.
This is easier said than done. It is even easier for children of Muslim immigrants to tell their parents this. For those of us who have never experienced famine, never lived in a war zone, never gone to sleep at night not knowing whether we will wake the next morning.
As children who have witnessed how survivor’s guilt has taken a toll on our parents, it is ignorant for us to dismiss our parent’s trauma by offering up solutions when they never healed in the first place. Our parents were plagued with the fight to survive back home. They had to salvage pieces of themselves to rebuild their lives in their new homes. Their journey to healing lay on the back burner, caught smoke, and eventually, burned with the rest of that memory.
Because of this, we want to help our parents, we want them to take these steps toward recovery to help them make peace with the past. But the truth is, there is no perfect or even easy way to do that. Healing requires the individual to sift through the pain and reconcile with their fears. Healing is not a journey outward — it’s inward. This is a path you must take alone in order to truly heal.
This conflict between wanting to help our parents and not being able to truly help them puts us in a position of contention. What do we do when we don’t have the answers? This conflict gives rise to intergenerational trauma amongst Muslim children. Intergenerational trauma is defined as trauma passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations.
What happens is we begin to internalize feelings of guilt because we can’t help our parents. This results in us making two choices: either we begin to dissociate with our parent’s suffering, and in turn, dissociate with the Muslim communities suffering back home, or we continue to try to find ways to help our parents, empathize with them, and keep up with what is happening back home.
Whichever path we choose, we still internalize guilt. When we dissociate, our guilt is subconscious. While we try to ignore the world and suffering around us, we can’t escape the pain our parents feel. When we empathize, the guilt is conscious. We spend days, nights, plagued by what we see in the news while trying to find a way to tell our parents they will be fine.
This is how we inherit our parent’s trauma, the trauma of those before them, and the trauma of Muslims suffering right now. For us, it is coming to terms with the fact that we could have been one of those Muslim children we see on TV.
It is daunting, how close I, like so many others, were to becoming one of them. For our parents, it is literally and figuratively being one of the Muslim children we see on TV. I can’t even put to words how it must feel to watch and feel your heart break at the same time.
I don’t have the answers on how to help ourselves or our parents. As much as I pray, I don’t know if we will ever see the end of this cycle. The irony is that this fight is not about losing or winning. Rather, it’s about learning how to live with your pain.
One thing I am certain of is that our parents deserve a chance to heal the child within them. For our parents, healing does not mean letting everything that hurt them go. It is coming face to face with their childhood selves and letting them know how brave they were, how proud they are of their resilience in spite of their circumstances.
The healing process will be a slow, difficult journey. Some of our parents will make it and others may never begin. There will be generations of Muslims who look into yet another Muslim child’s eyes and see themselves reflected back in them.
Maybe it’s comforting to let them know how we have walked through the same fire and did not turn to stone. Maybe it’s a reminder to never forget what it felt like to be burned.
To our parents and the Muslim community: while trauma never leaves and guilt builds its home in us, we must give ourselves grace for the trials we endured. To children like me, tell your parents how inspirational they are. Do the things they missed as children with them. Encourage them to make mistakes and even be reckless. While we can’t give them back their childhood, we can help them live the childhood they deserved.