Look out for survivor’s guilt

Content note: discussion of the current pandemic.

Living through a pandemic is stressful, and that stress affects us in lots of different ways. Once life returns to some semblance of normal, our brains will be very screwed up and we’ll all need therapy.

Something I’ve recently realised: I’m starting to get survivor’s guilt.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you get survivor’s guilt when you think you’ve done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others were injured or killed. It’s particularly common among people who’ve lived through warfare, natural disasters, terrorist attacks – and also pandemics.

I can feel it creeping in: I’m still alive; nobody close to me has died (yet); my income and career are more stable than many people. Assuming I don’t get sick, I’ll be alive and less affected than most people when this is all over. As a result, I’m starting to review and implement coping mechanisms for survivor’s guilt.

A contributing factor is that I see a lot of people doing more to help than me. I’m following social distancing guidelines, working from home, trying not to go outside more than necessary – and meanwhile doctors and nurses are putting themselves at risk to save lives. Rationally, I know that staying home is helping and it’s the best thing I can do, but my brain doesn’t always react rationally.

This isn’t entirely new to me.

I’ve had flashes of survivor’s guilt before (both COVID and non-COVID related), but it took me ages to spot it the first time it happened. It wasn’t until a friend sat down and patiently walked through it with me that it really clicked.

So if survivor’s guilt is a new thing for you, let me speed up that bit of the process: a pandemic is going to be massively traumatic. I hope that you all survive, but we know that everyone will. (Too many people are already dead.) Survivor’s guilt is very likely, and having some coping mechanisms in place may help. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got right now.

I hope that by sharing these thoughts, I might make it a bit easier for people who read them, and keep some of my own brain weasels at bay. Stay safe, friends.