The Super Bowl and Survivor Guilt

02/06/2013 01:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2013

Like millions of Americans on Sunday, I watched the Super Bowl. My goals were to watch a great game of football, clever commercials and an entertaining halftime show. The game turned out to be much more compelling in the second half (after the 30-minute power outage delay) than the first half. I liked many of the commercials, but some of them fell decidedly flat. The halftime show produced the expected spectacle of star power. What continues to hold my attention, though, came before the game ever started -- the Sandy Hook Elementary School choir singing "America the Beautiful" with Jennifer Hudson during the pre-game show. I had a visceral, emotional reaction that I doubt was the one show producers were going for.

As I watched the children, smiling and clearly excited to be on stage in front of a stadium packed with people and broadcast to millions, I felt a sense of unease, flashing back to images of Dec. 14. It wasn't so long ago those children were awash in violent chaos, crying, screaming, grieving, wondering why. The Sandy Hook massacre took place less than two months ago. How disorienting must it be to go from sheer terror and grief into a massive national spotlight?

I recognize those children were placed at the Super Bowl for good and sincere reasons. A statement from the students was reported as saying, "We have come to New Orleans to represent the Sandy Hook Family and the community of Newtown, Conn. Our wish is to demonstrate to America and the world that 'We are Sandy Hook, and We Choose Love.'" Such a large task for small shoulders. There were 26 children in the Sandy Hook choir, perhaps representing the 26 killed at the school.

I understand the symbolism and heartfelt desire to turn something terrible into something uplifting. Yet, I still can't get past my unease. If I had to give my unease a name, it would be survivor guilt. I'm concerned about these children, and others at Sandy Hook, becoming caught up in currents meant to sweep them past the horror yet swirling them toward an unintended threat.

Survivor guilt is just that -- guilt that you have survived a terrible ordeal when others, especially others you love, have not. Survivors can experience tremendous feelings of fault for somehow living when others have died. Survivors will compare themselves to those who died and determine an injustice was done, especially when those who died are placed on an elevated status after death. When comparing yourself to someone set high upon a pedestal, it's difficult to look anywhere but up, emphasizing how low you are. The conclusion becomes: If someone had to die, it really should have been you.

It was 51 days from the massacre to the Super Bowl. So soon and so much attention; those children may feel as if they are caught up in a whirlwind. Life placed them in a certain position, and now notoriety has placed them in another. Putting those children at the Super Bowl feels to me like an adult response, a desire to turn a tragedy around, to move from grief to action. I have to wonder, though, if that's really what's best for at least some of those children.

For the past 51 days, I've done media interviews on what trauma looks like in school children. People want to know how children react when a safe place, like a school, suddenly becomes a battleground. I've outlined symptoms of stress and anxiety, from regression like bed-wetting, to nightmares, worry and stomachaches. People are concerned about children reacting thousands of miles from Sandy Hook. Watching the pre-game show Sunday, I couldn't help but wonder at the reaction of those 26 children who were literally at ground zero.

As a therapist, my advice would be to watch them carefully, especially after the lights go down and the show is over.

For more by Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., click here.

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