The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult things to process and in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even harder. Often, the loss of life to the coronavirus is sudden. With added restrictions for visitors, saying goodbye has been limited to calls and messages. The separation only adds to the grief and sadness of loved ones left behind. It also cultivates a dangerous feeling known as survivor’s guilt, hampering the grieving process further. 

To better understand this distressing emotion, TC46 connected with Psychologist Hirak Patel from Fortis Hospital, Mumbai. Here, she explains what survivor’s guilt is, the effect of the pandemic on mental health and ways to cope with the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19.

1. What is survivor’s guilt?

The ongoing pandemic has not only increased the fear of infection but living through this pandemic has brought people experiences of anxiety, trauma, grief and guilt. As the number of more illness and deaths have risen since last year, the uncertainty of the virus and dealing with it has become overwhelming. Many people have lost their loved ones due to the virus but survived it themselves. And going through the loss can also cause to sense of guilt that survivors are facing along with the grieving. The person experiencing it either believes that either they are the cause of their loved one’s demise or that they are not capable of living as the loved one has passed away. Or sometimes it can be both. There are lots of questions like “Why me?” or “Why I have to go through this?”. Many feel like they are unable to provide the required or adequate support to those around them. All this can also impact a person’s sense of self, belief, optimism and resilience to cope with the situation.

2. What is collective trauma and how is it manifesting during the pandemic?

As we see, the pandemic has affected everyone in some way or another. People are experiencing fear, guilt as the experiences are traumatic. All over the world people are facing new reality and trying and adjust to it. Post-traumatic stress disorder may also get precipitated during this time as the stress associated with the illness, the diagnosis and worry towards the person getting the infection is been increasing. It has manifested during this time as it is something that everyone is facing and the intensity of the fear has been increasing. The loss that people are experiencing is something that is not expected and the mourning looks different, however, hearing, reading, watching about the illness and death is collective which is happening all around the world and hence the trauma is manifesting.

3. How has quarantine, self and mandatory isolation affected people’s mental health?

Getting isolated or self-quarantined to avoid getting exposed to the infection is required in order to take proper precautions for self and those around. However, quarantine is a new concept for all of us. The constant worry about health, thoughts about not been around people, limited physical movement, fear of transmitting the infection to others around creates anxiety and fear among people. Isolation and quarantining have affected mental well-being and people are experiencing emotional distress. But one needs to remember that even though it is physical isolation one can always stay connected with others socially by using different mediums.

Check out some tips to strengthen your bonding with family and friends during the lockdown here.

4. How is survivor’s guilt becoming an issue for people during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is something that is new to everyone, a collective experience we are facing for the first time. The way our mind deals with grief or loss or anxiety is different then what is been experienced during this time. All over the world, people are experiencing common things like:

  • Unemployment
  • Lack of social interaction and physical contact
  • Worry about the future
  • Health concerns
  • Family responsibilities
  • Financial distress
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Uncertainty
  • Bereavement 

The feeling of helplessness the feeling of not being able to do or push or the feeling of incapability all has added and is affecting people. When the person has lost a loved one, and he/she feels guilty about it. they experience all sorts of emotions more intensely. This makes the grieving process difficult. Along with physical health, even mental health has been affected because of the pandemic. Reality becomes the trigger and makes it harder to cope for the person.

5. Who is more susceptible to survivors guilt and why?

The person who has witnessed the death of loved ones or even the people who are taking care of someone with the infection are vulnerable to feeling guilty. If the person was close, witnessing how the loved one’s health deteriorated and the consequential death, makes the person feel so. The guilt of not being able to do enough for the person, the guilt of “Why did I make it and not the other person”, or the anger towards certain external factors becomes overwhelming. This makes the person more susceptible to feeling guilty about what has happened. Also, due to limited physical mobility, the feeling of not been available, the absence of a support group exacerbates this emotion.

6. What are some common symptoms of survivor’s guilt?

Guilt can have both mental and physical manifestations and affect the person in several ways. Some of the common symptoms are: 

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive thoughts about the situation
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Body aches
  • Irritability
  • Feeling of helplessness
  • Isolation or social withdrawal
  • Flashbacks
  • Not feeling interested in doing things
  • Change in appetite
  • Feeling of despair
  • Feeling of helplessness
  • Agitation

7. What are some coping strategies to deal with this guilt and take care of one’s mental health?

Dealing with grief is difficult and takes times. During the pandemic, where there is also guilt associated, it becomes even harder to cope. While it becomes natural for someone going through a situation like this to feel anxious or have fear, one needs to also understand that a healthy mind and body will help you to sail through the phase. Self-care while taking care of others is vital. One needs to also keep in mind that even their health is important and nothing can be poured from an empty glass. It can be difficult to accept the situation, however, one should always try and engage with others and have a support group. As everyone is learning on their own, there are no rules or guidelines. Having a routine for yourself and sticking to it gives you a feeling of control. Talking about what you feel and not bottling up things and self-blaming needs to be avoided as one needs to remember that not everything is in their control and there are certain self-limitations. Exercise and meditation done on a regular basis will help.

8. Is social media a feel-good escape that helps keep the stress of survivor’s guilt at bay or is it hampering mental health?

Social media is something that people reach out to get information about things, find support or help if required. However, it comes with its own risk. By using it wisely, you can get support, encouragement and provide help to others in need. By using the platform to provide motivation and maintaining optimism around, you can help an individual to get through a tough phase.

9. Could you share some vital dos and don’ts on dealing with the loss of a loved one to COVID-19?

Dealing with loss is difficult and everyone has their own way of going through the phase. Grieving becomes difficult, however, when we talk about the guilt that an individual experiences. One needs to keep in mind that self-doubt or feeling like they were not able to do anything is common, but these things are beyond our control. Do as much as you can, for everyone is pushing their limits but remember, there are other external factors that play a role as well.

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