Abandonment Guilt

This is the last in a series of posts by Sue Hassmiller, who has been blogging from the tornado destruction in Alabama, where she’s been volunteering with the Red Cross.—JM, senior editor/blog editor

I will do hospital visits today and have been told that the first family I will visit is a priority—an 8-year-old is not expected to make it through the day.  If he dies, then he will join his mother and brother, who were killed instantly. The father, who was at work when the tornado hit, was spared. We will talk to the father or the uncle. He speaks Spanish, so a translator will be present. 

"Home Is Where the Heart Is"

How do you convey in words—especially through a translator—what you need to say, what you want to say? I will hug him . . . I know I will . . . everybody hugs here. And I know there will be survivor’s guilt. Not being a war veteran, this is the closest I have been to so much of it: a grandfather who survived while holding his 7-week-old granddaughter, who was “swept up and away”; an elderly mother who lost her 42-year-old daughter (a “famous paramedic . . . and helping so many”);  a wife of 32 years who lost her husband, the only breadwinner for the family—it goes on and on. 

The stories fill large white notebooks now, here at headquarters in Birmingham. And I am leaving tomorrow. I am leaving all of this behind and feel very acutely that I am abandoning them, all of them. I know better, know in my head that life will go on, that I must return to work, that I have a very loving and supportive husband waiting for me, that I have a dog that has not been “properly” walked for the last 11 days. But my heart is still suffering today. I will follow the advice that I gave a colleague yesterday morning when she conveyed her own sense of abandonment guilt. I told her, “Becky, this is only half your job. The other half is going home and continuing to tell the stories of the people of Alabama and how the Red Cross helped them.” 

I also told her that “there will always be disasters, and as long as there is a Red Cross (and many other wonderful organizations), then hope lives.” I believe that in my head—it will just take a bit longer for my heart to catch up.

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2016-11-21T13:13:14+00:00 May 16th, 2011|Nursing|2 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Karen May 19, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    My family was affected by this tragic event. I am so happy that there were volunteers like you who left their homes and families to assist.
    Thank you!!

  2. Peny May 17, 2011 at 4:40 am

    Though the reality of life is that people come and go, and all humans will eventually die, it is still hard to accept death especially on tragedies and natural calamities. Being a nurse or a doctor is quite a privilege as well as a great burden. Along with that burden is what you had just posted, the “burden of guilt” and the burden of retaining the memories of tragic faces of people who don’t survive and survived at the same time. Whew! Life could be that difficult, eh.

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