It’s time to talk about the survivor’s guilt

– Tali Berliner, clinical psychologist


For many Americans, the post-vaccine transition to disrupted activities during the pandemic has brought a sense of joy and relief, even as they keep a close eye on reports of an increase in cases and deaths. the spread of the Delta variant. But this new phase of the pandemic for many has also triggered uncomfortable and unexpected feelings of guilt among survivors.

Survivor guilt – those feelings of shame or regret experienced by someone who has been through a crisis – can take many forms: discomfort in feeling joy or positive emotions, regret for actions taken or not taken, a nagging voice who wonders “why me? When others have not. This is common after natural disasters or mass tragedies, even when the survivor is not directly responsible for the event in question.

Covid is no exception, made worse by the fact that the degree of hardship faced by people during the pandemic was largely based on race and economic factors. Hospitalization and death rates were two to three times higher for blacks, Latinos and Natives in the United States than for whites and Asians, and they were higher in poor areas than among the well-to-do. Those who belong to communities that have endured more suffering may feel guilty for having succeeded when so many loved ones have not. Those in more privileged circumstances may feel guilty for being on the lucky side of an unfair system.

Fighting against this guilt is uncomfortable. It is also loneliness, even when countless others experience it at the same time. With survivor guilt, there is not a single wrong to atone or no one to make amends. It’s an ongoing argument with a faceless inner judge. “The guilt is between us and ourselves,” psychiatrist Willard Gaylin once said. “Guilt is the most personal of emotions,” he said. “It’s internalized and intensely.”

Dr Gaylin spoke to a reporter at this newspaper over 40 years ago. The insulating nature of guilt has not changed.

When In Her Words shared on social media that we were working on a story about survivor guilt, the response was immediate: an inbox filled with people describing their own feelings of guilt, but also asking not to be cited. by name. We were struck by the number of people who had faced legitimately difficult circumstances during the pandemic, yet still felt an unspeakable shame at not having seen worse: I lost my job, but not my partner. We had to raise our first baby on our own, but at least we met.

“People will come into my office frequently and say, I know I shouldn’t be this depressed, others are doing it worse,” said David Chesire, associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida. It’s the survivor’s guilt speaking. “People are really bad at judging their own form of misery. If you suffer and suffer, it is valid and it is real. You have to be a little self-centered on this one and focus on your own suffering. “

And by constantly putting your pain aside, experts say, you’re more likely to get stuck in feelings of crisis.

“It’s so normal to feel the guilt of a survivor,” said Tali Berliner, a licensed clinical psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, specializing in bereavement. The question, she said, is how to turn those feelings into a force that helps the survivor move forward, rather than trapping them in the past.

One way to do this is to write your own experiences during the pandemic, a form of therapy Emily Esfahani Smith, author and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, described in a recent guest essay for The Times.

“Storytelling can be a useful tool. To start, you can write your pandemic story, identifying its key themes, ”Ms. Esfahani Smith wrote. And when you’re ready, “you can spend some time thinking about your story for the future. After the pandemic, what kind of life do you want to lead? What kind of person do you want to become?

This writing doesn’t need to be aimed at the public: Social media isn’t great at providing the non-judgmental space that experts say is most healing.

Dr Berliner recommends rephrasing the question: “Why was I spared?” “To” How can I use the fact that I have been spared? And leverage it to do something meaningful. It could be volunteering for an organization that works for the change you believe in, being there for the people you love, or allowing yourself to enjoy and appreciate the activities that make you feel good. -be: a walk, a book, a friend.

Guilt alone does nothing better; it doesn’t bring anyone back. Its value, experts say, is to direct our attention to what really matters to us.

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