Key Takeaways

    • Many cardiac arrest survivors struggle with issues around what happened, views on life and death, and how to make sense of the world.
    • If you are having a difficult time or feeling overwhelmed, it may be helpful to talk to someone. This may be a counselor or therapist, a clergy person, other spiritual guide, or a peer support group.   
    • Be gentle with yourself as you work through these issues.
Why me? What if? What now?

Many cardiac arrest survivors struggle with “existential questions,” which are defined as thoughts around what happened that affect how we view life and death, as well as how we make sense of the world. You may wonder why the cardiac arrest happened to you or why you survived. You may reevaluate your religious beliefs. Your beliefs may grow stronger after cardiac arrest, or you may start to doubt what you have always believed. You may try to search for an answer to the “why” question. You may spend time trying to sort this out and understand what it means for your life and your beliefs.

Most people do not think about their own life and death very often. Surviving cardiac arrest puts the idea of life and death right in front of you. It reminds you that death can occur without warning, and we are more at risk than we think. It may take away your sense of safety, and it may make you feel vulnerable.

Humans are designed to make connections between events and to try to make sense of what happens. There is no clear answer to the question of why. People have cardiac arrests for many, many reasons, and sometimes the medical care team cannot figure out the underlying medical cause for a particular person. That does not mean that there was no cause, only that they have not figured it out yet. People survive by being in the right place at the right time. Someone noticed that something was wrong and called for help. Chest compressions happened quickly, and a defibrillator was available. Not all dangerous heart rhythms respond to defibrillators even when used properly by a lay responder. Whatever the cause of the cardiac arrest was, it was reversed and treated. To survive, everything had to go right. 

Some people feel guilty and wonder why they survived. This often occurs when they learn of someone else’s death after cardiac arrest. But each event and outcome is different from the next. You cannot trade outcomes. Your survival did not lead to another’s death. Had they survived, it would not mean you would have had to die. The best outcome would be for everyone to survive. Sometimes our minds play tricks on us and say that another person should have survived instead, because they are younger, or “deserve” it more, or their work is “more important,” or whatever. But cardiac arrest, life, and death don’t work that way. You survive or you don’t. It is possible (and used to almost always be true) for no one to survive. 

After surviving cardiac arrest, people often think they have to do something special with their lives as if they have to earn the right to survive by accomplishing something incredible. You do not need to accomplish great things because you survived. You may think about what you want to do with your life, given that you are more conscious that life is precious. For some people, this is a time to rethink priorities and what is important to them. This is a common response to major life events. 

Some survivors spend time searching for meaning in their lives. Some choose to advocate for or promote awareness around cardiac arrest and life-saving skills like CPR. For some people, that is meaningful. But if you want to do something else, there are many ways to find or create meaning. It may be through helping others, it may be through art or music, it may be connecting with family, it may be just living your life. 

If you are having a difficult time or feeling overwhelmed, it may be helpful to talk to someone. If you have spiritual doubts, you may seek out a clergy person or other spiritual guide to talk with. If you are unsure about what to do with your life, a counselor or therapist may be able to help you sort out your values and priorities. Sometimes, it is helpful to talk with other survivors. 

Humans have struggled to make sense of life and death for as long as there have been humans. After cardiac arrest, this is a common and normal response. Be gentle with yourself as you work through these issues.

Sometimes those around a cardiac arrest survivor will interpret what happened in a way that may or may not be helpful for you. They may tell you that you should feel grateful for surviving when you are terrified and angry that you experienced cardiac arrest. They may say God wasn’t done with you when you feel abandoned or don’t even believe in God. Some things they say might be comforting. Some things might just make you feel more alone, as if they don’t understand at all. You have a right to your reactions and your way of making sense out of what happened. If your feelings are too overwhelming and others are putting their spin on your life, talking to a counselor might be helpful. It takes time to process what has happened to you. Those close to you may have experienced trauma from the event, but their way of coping and making sense of it is their own, just as your way of coping and making sense of it is your own.

Thank you to our contributors

Fran Lesicko & Kelly Sawyer

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