Sometimes I feel like I’m in a lifeboat watching the Titanic sink. Thousands have died and lives continue to be disrupted while I sit safe inside my home.
My heart breaks for those who have suffered the most from this pandemic. Our family members in the New York area have surely witnessed and experienced things that are far removed for our experience here in the remote north.
Knowing that others are suffering and grieving while I’m relatively okay overwhelms me with a sense of guilt.
Why is this happening to them and not me? How can I go for walks and play games with my family when other families are grieving their loss? Should I be doing more to help? Could I have prevented or better prepared for this in some way?
When catastrophe strikes, those who survive or remain mostly unscathed can struggle with something known as survivor’s guilt. At its core, it’s the feeling that you are committing a wrong by staying safe, healthy, alive or having plenty while other people in the same situation are grieving, sick, dying or going without.
This kind of guilt can be a difficult feeling to shake. It can be tethered to our feelings of grief and helplessness over another’s experience that is outside of our control. Some of us are more predisposed to it, especially if we’ve previously experienced trauma, deep loss or have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During this pandemic, you may feel guilty for a variety of reasons:
- For not being able to tangibly help in some way
- For simply taking care of yourself
- For surviving when a friend has died
- For recovering from illness when others did not
- For not being able to save your patient on the front lines
- For being scared and worrying about your safety
- For struggling to homeschool your kids
- For fighting with your family
- For binge-watching, not being productive, not exercising, snacking too much, etc.
- For feeling moody or overreacting
False guilt and misplaced responsibility is a powerful combination. “The resulting self-condemnation and isolation takes a toll on your health and relationships” (Psychology Today). Learning how to recognize the signs of survivor’s guilt is extremely important for your mental and emotional health during this unprecedented time.
How to Cope
Recognize there is a difference between real and false guilt. Rational guilt develops when our action (or lack thereof) breaks God’s moral law. Real guilt is meant to lead us to conviction, repentance and restoration (1 John 1:9). Survivor’s guilt is a false sense of responsibility where you blame yourself for something that objectively is not your fault. This kind of guilt leads to feelings of shame, hopelessness and despair.
When we go through a disaster, our fates feel intertwined. It’s easy to compare my situation to yours but our fates are not actually correlated. The Bible says that our days are already determined (Job 14:5) and that there is a “time to be born and a time to die” (Ecc 3:2). God is the one who breathes life into us and recalls it; He alone knows the number of our days (Ps 139:16). Since God is both the author and sustainer of life, we can leave the fate of others in His hands.
There is nothing wrong with staying home, taking care of yourself or recovering from Covid-19. If you feel like you didn’t deserve to survive, think about those who are grateful you did. Those who love you are thankful you recovered or did everything you could to keep yourself healthy and safe.
Hidden beneath guilt can be feelings of grief. It may be easier to blame yourself than to feel brokenhearted about all the suffering in the world. Experiencing the raw and gut-wrenching pain of grief can be intimidating and overwhelming. While false guilt may be an easier coping method, it really doesn’t help anybody, yourself included. Where guilt falls short, grief succeeds. Grieving with others produces the healing, comfort and solidarity that guilt cannot achieve (Rom 12:15).
If you’re wrestling with survivor’s guilt, here are some tips that can help:
- Accept how you feel. Feeling guilty for surviving or fairing well is a common experience.
- Differentiate between your role and the responsibility of others.
- Allow yourself time to grieve with those who are suffering and for those who have died.
- Find ways to help that are within your realm of control.
- Connect with other survivors for support.
- Resist the urge to beat yourself up over what you “should” have known or done. Hindsight is always 20/20.
If you are feeling guilty for surviving or remaining relatively unscathed, take time to process these emotions. Connect with other survivors for support. Sometimes staying home is the best thing you can do to help. It may not feel like much, but it has proven to play an essential part in containing the spread and protecting the vulnerable. You can still support others from a distance by saying a prayer, being a listening ear or encouraging them in their time of need.
This post is part of a 10-part series on how to successfully navigate your emotions during a crisis. Check out the other emotions in this series below: