Survivor's Guilt and COVID-19

March makes roughly one year since many places in the world started shutting down, particularly in the United States where I am. It was the beginning of what many have never lived through: a global shut down.

Frantic decision making, panic and anxiety began to pick up as we realized the intensity of what was unfolding. There was so much uncertainty in the length of this experience and in how COVID-19 would impact us.

There's no respective person that's been immune to contracting COVID-19. Even in some of our best efforts to stay safe, there's been no rhyme or reason for who’s contracted COVID-19 and how it would impact our bodies and minds. From asymptomatic to not enough space to hold corpses and not enough tools and resources to support those in need…. What a ride this has been and continues to be for all of us.

As we journey through COVID-19, I’ve been thinking about survivor's guilt. It’s a psychological, emotional and physical process of feeling guilt after a traumatic event or loss. This guilt may exist regarding various dynamics of the event. Some examples may include (but are not limited to):

  • Guilt about surviving COVID-19 when a loved one loss their life.

  • Guilt about not contracting COVID-19, while someone who took necessary precautions died.

  • Guilt about what you could/should have done to help or keep another alive. Those thoughts may sound like, "maybe I could have advocated more if I were present with them at the hospital". "If only I noticed the symptoms earlier, maybe I could have helped".

This guilt at times stops us from experiencing gratitude or joy for being alive. Those experiencing survivor’s guilt put excessive responsibility on themselves regarding the outcome. Subsequently, this guilt can sometimes create a false narrative of being undeserving and unworthy of life.

Because numerous factors can impact one's susceptibility to experience survivor’s guilt such as self-esteem, history of traumatic events, pre-existing mental health conditions, etc., I don’t want to give detailed how-to’s of journeying through survivor's guilt. My clinical recommendation is to seek tailored support from a professional or various support groups centered on this topic. However, I want this to be a conversation starter. I want to help give language to feelings that may be unfamiliar to many of us. For those who have experienced this or are experiencing it, I want you to know I hold you in my mind and heart. For those who may not have thought of this concept, I challenge you to consider this experience. There are some who have felt guilt. Who feel guilt and remorse for surviving amidst the many who haven’t made it through COVID-19. Underneath these feelings of guilt, can exist more post-traumatic stress and/or grief.

May this consideration help to shape how we extend compassion to ourselves and others as we reflect a year later on what has been and continues to be. Acknowledge what you feel. In community, process the guilt and underlying grief… and also remember just because we have a feeling doesn’t mean it’s our feeling to keep.

Rooting for you, always.

Diamond James, LCSWA

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800)-273-8255.

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