The number of people lost due to the pandemic in India is of a similar magnitude to the number lost during the Partition of 1947. The trauma of the Partition still haunts some of its survivors almost 75 years later. The trauma of living through the pandemic will likely have a similar and significant long-term impact. As a counselor, I am already beginning to experience it in my counseling practice.
One of the many emotions survivors of a tragedy experience that is not much talked about—whether it was the Partition, the Holocaust, a car accident, an earthquake, or the current pandemic—is “survivor guilt.” Some survivors feel guilty that they survived when others did not. Others believe they could have done more to save those who died. Some feel guilty that someone died saving them. Survivors are typically left with many unanswered questions: Why did it happen? Why did I escape death while others died? How can I enjoy life when others cannot? Could I have done something that would have changed the outcome?
Survivors tend to hold false beliefs about their role in the tragedy that lead to their feelings of guilt. They may have an exaggerated belief about their ability to change an outcome or cause a negative outcome, and they internalize blame and attribute the cause of the tragedy to themselves rather than to things outside their control. They may also ruminate over what happened and what they could have, or should have, done.
The likelihood of experiencing survivor guilt increases if a person has a history of childhood trauma, a history of mental health concerns, or does not have the support of family and friends. People with low self-esteem may place less value on their own wellbeing and are more likely to question whether they “deserved” their good luck of surviving. Thoughts, such as the following, may occur: “Why I survived,” “I don’t deserve to be here,” “If I had done something differently, this wouldn’t have happened,” and “I couldn’t stop it, so it’s all my fault.” According to Colin Ross and Naomi Halpern in their 2009 book, Trauma Model Therapy, self-blame compensates for feelings of powerlessness and helplessness; believing that it is one’s own fault gives one an illusion of power and a sense of control in being able to prevent something similar from happening again.
Survivor guilt may also cause the person suffering from it to see the world as an unfair and unsafe place and themselves as a bad person deserving of punishment. The person may not seek help, as they believe that they don’t deserve to feel better. Sometimes, the pain becomes a way to maintain the bond with their loved ones.
It is important to know that recovery from survivor guilt is not a linear process; the guilt and grief may come in waves. Sometimes, people may start feeling better and then suddenly feel bad again when they hear about another traumatic event. During the pandemic, especially during the peak of the second wave, people were dealing with one loss after another, resulting in constant re-traumatization. There was a time when the trauma experienced just did not seem to stop.
Surviving the pandemic has some additional factors that increase the risk of experiencing survivor guilt: the extended length of time that the pandemic has continued for, and the fact that many people have had to deal with loss and grief in isolation away from family and friends—unable even to perform last rites—at a time when they were already experiencing loneliness because of the lockdown and social distancing requirements. To add to this was the failure of state machinery; the shortage of oxygen, medical supplies, and vaccinations, along with the fact that people lost jobs and livelihoods and even went hungry. There is also the collective trauma everyone has experienced, which meant that anyone a person went to for support was also struggling with similar grief and trauma.
While some people take longer, most people suffering from survivor guilt improve within a year. There are things one can do to help this journey from grief and guilt to healing:
- It is important to recognize, allow, and accept your feelings. Before you accept your feelings, you must accept the reality of the event itself. Remember that these feelings are common. Feeling guilty does not mean that you are guilty. Sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, and guilt are normal responses to any tragic event, as is experiencing some relief about your own luck as you mourn the loss of others.
- Give yourself permission and time to grieve, knowing that there is no defined time limit governing when it should be over.
- Share your feelings with family, friends, a counselor, or a support group—whatever works for you. Consider getting professional help to experience some relief and regain control of your life.
- Focusing onthe external factors that created or caused the situation can help you let go of the self-blame and guilt.
- Use grounding techniques based on mindfulness principles like focusing on breathing, feeling nearby fabrics, and noticing sounds (among others).
- Learn to forgive yourself, even if your actions were responsible for harm to another person, because you are human.
- Shift your focus to doing something good for someone else. This could even be a simple thing like donating blood, making a cash donation, or giving someone the gift of listening.
- Practice self-careby doing things that feel good and that you enjoy, besides the usual prescription of getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly. The more you focus on the things that bring you joy, the more you can train your brain to feel more optimistic and resilient in the face of adversity. Always remember what makes you happy: What are you passionate about? What are you grateful for? What are you good at? Understand how you can use the answers to these questions to protect your energy and redirect your focus to the things that matter.
In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, “Survivor guilt is a thief of joy—yet another secondary loss from death.” Having faced the extremely tragic death of their husband, I guess their perspective comes from lived experience, and it could not be truer. So, given what the world has experienced, please reach out for support if you, or someone you know, can identify with survivor guilt.
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Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.