Everyone who survived the sinking of the Titanic had to sit (or stand) in a wooden lifeboat for over two hours and listen to the sound of 1,500 people dying in the water around them. They heard cries for help, calls of loved ones’ names, final prayers and last words as hypothermia claimed lives. Many women sitting in lifeboats knew their husbands were most likely in the water. How would you ever get over that?
Added to the horror of the experience, there was the guilt that they could perhaps have done more. On the emptier lifeboats there were arguments about whether to go back and pick up survivors from the water, but in most cases fear of being overwhelmed and capsizing stopped them.
Once back on land, male survivors faced the opprobrium of the press for saving their own lives while women and children perished. Many found their businesses boycotted and their invitations to prestigious society events dried up.
It’s perhaps no surprise that of
the 711 people who survived, at least seven men and one woman committed suicide in later life –
a much higher rate than would
be expected in the population at large. Several marriages broke down, in an era when divorce was still considered scandalous. Others leapt into hasty marriages – such as Eloise Smith, who lost her first husband on the Titanic and married the man who comforted her on the Carpathia (it didn’t last, of course). People changed jobs, moved home, and many of them never set foot on a ship again.
Tellingly, lots of survivors never spoke of their experiences that night, even to their families. Maybe it was survivor guilt, or maybe they simply couldn’t bear to revisit the sheer awfulness of what they had witnessed. The same phenomenon was common among Holocaust survivors.
There were no counsellors specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder back in 1912, but there’s little doubt that Titanic survivors experienced symptoms of it. I’ve explored this in my forthcoming Titanic novel, Women and Children First, through a character called Reg Parton, who suffers from flashbacks and depression, and makes some over-hasty life changes in the aftermath of the sinking.
Those 711 people might have escaped from the depths of the iceberg-strewn North Atlantic, but I don’t think anyone survived unscathed