3 Experiences With COVID Survivor's Guilt And How To Cope With It Survivor's guilt is usually associated with people who survive war. It's now consuming some people who survived a deadly disease that so many didn't. A counselor gives steps to address those feelings.

Racked With Guilt, Some COVID-19 Survivors Are Asking, 'Why Me?'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1014967358/1014967359" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Anxiety, tension, helplessness - those are just some of the symptoms people with survivor's guilt experience. Survivor's guilt is known for affecting people like soldiers who come home from war or first responders who feel a sense of, why did I make it? - after a traumatic event. Now, after over 600,000 people died in this country, survivors of COVID-19 are asking themselves similar questions. Debbie Kosta of New York said when she got sick with the virus, she begged doctors to do all they could to keep her alive.

DEBBIE KOSTA: I wanted to impress upon the doctor to make sure that he doesn't let me go, that they do everything in their power. And I know that they did. But I know that they also lacked machinery and staff and all that stuff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Early in the pandemic, New York City was strapped for supplies. Debbie was in the hospital for 26 days and needed one respirator after another. But when she came out of a coma, the guilt was crushing.

KOSTA: There was this one man in the ER when I had entered. And, you know, I was asking about him. I remembered his name. And I remembered there was also an old woman. I searched later to find, you know, what happened to these people. The old lady made it. The man did not make it. It's a feeling of, wow, we were in here together. Did I take away from that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abigail Nathanson counsels people with survivor's guilt, and she says it gives people a way to cope.

ABIGAIL NATHANSON: I think guilt is sometimes a way for us to have a false sense of control, right? I am not vulnerable to the senseless reason why all these things are happening. I am not powerless if it was my fault, and I made a mistake.

JENNA SIMPSON-OLIVER: I have a lot of (laughter) - a lot of guilt on a lot of different levels. I mean, over half a million Americans have lost their lives. So, you know, why did they, and I didn't? Why did I survive?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jenna Simpson-Oliver. She's a mother of twins and an attorney. She still has symptoms, like brain fog and fatigue, months after she tested positive for COVID. And though it's been hard to get back to normal, she acknowledges the privilege of having the time and the space to properly heal.

SIMPSON-OLIVER: What about the people that don't have that support system? So many people have lost their jobs. Their jobs aren't supportive. They don't have any income coming in. They don't have insurance, so they don't see doctors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When Rachael Sunshine contracted the virus, she knew the odds were stacked against her. She's a disabled veteran. Sunshine says people would ask her...

RACHAEL SUNSHINE: Why do you feel guilty about surviving? Well, when you've been through a lot and you're in a population that statistically was not supposed to survive, you do feel a little bit guilty about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Linda Lausell Bryant, a social worker and clinical professor at NYU, came down with COVID along with her husband in the early days of the pandemic. Her husband had to be hospitalized while she remained mostly asymptomatic. They're both doing better now, but Linda says they were not surprised to see the way COVID ravaged communities of color.

LINDA LAUSELL BRYANT: When we did a deeper look, it wasn't so random. It really did seem to be connected to what kind of access one had to health care, what kind of health care you had. What color was your skin? How were you treated based on the color of your skin?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that realization contributed to her overall sense of guilt.

LAUSELL BRYANT: And that felt even worse because of the allegiance we have to people of our community of color, and yet we were privileged in a way that many others were not. That was hard, also, given that we are people who are trying to fight for that equity and fight for justice. And yet while our local hospitals were a mess, we had a colleague who knew someone at another hospital, and my husband was able to get high-quality care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Counselor Abigail Nathanson says the first step to managing survivor's guilt is to name it.

NATHANSON: The first thing I would want to do is acknowledge the grief that's underneath that, acknowledge the feelings of loss and powerlessness. And so much of guilt is really just reminding people that they are still part of a community who are there for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Debbie Kosta said she dedicates her survival to those who didn't make it.

KOSTA: I say to myself, OK, you know what? I'm alive. They're not. Going to get back to walking again, then slowly, slowly walk a block, walk a block more, walk a block more after that. This one's for you. This one's for you. So it's like my health is, like, dedicated to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lausell Bryant said she found solace in her faith and activism.

LAUSELL BRYANT: What we are trying to do is focus on gratitude for the way things worked out and to try to recommit to advocating that in these kinds of situations, we really should work towards becoming a society that does better by all people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nathanson says the most important thing to do is to have compassion.

NATHANSON: And it makes sense that it would be so challenging and so dysregulating to navigate a world that got turned upside down seemingly overnight and then to figure out what's important to you. What keeps you going? What is something that's more important than your daily struggles? Who you are and how you show up in the world and what you want to accomplish and what you want to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAE TOVEN'S "WAVES")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was social worker and counselor Abigail Nathanson. You also heard from COVID survivors Debbie Kosta, Jenna Simpson-Oliver, Rachael Sunshine and Linda Lausell Bryant.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAE TOVEN'S "WAVES")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.