Dr. Miriam Laker-Oketta
When someone goes through a traumatic experience while other don’t, one tends to have questions and feeling of guilt. The Doctor shares some insights on the same.
I wanted to write this article last month, but, I could not pull myself together enough to even start. You see in June, I was sick with COVID-19 for three weeks. Our children also got COVID-19 but were, thankfully, well after a week. While I thought recovery would be the best part of it, I soon realized that, while I no longer had COVID-19, I was not well: I felt low constantly and unmotivated to do the things that formerly brought me joy; I cried often; was anxious, and, most of all, I felt deeply guilty. My family and I had all had COVID-19 and now we were well and yet everywhere around me, people were dying and losing loved ones. We, on the other hand had not even needed to be admitted to hospital. I felt guilty; guilty for having had it easy. I constantly questioned why we had survived when so many had not. Day
after day, I attended online funerals and read death announcements and even obituaries of people with no connection to me. When I lost three close friends in just a month, I broke down. It was then that I realized that I was suffering from survivor syndrome. A real medical ailment!
What is survivor syndrome? Also called survivor guilt, it is a condition where an individual feels guilty for having survived any traumatic experience while others did not survive. The individual concludes that they were somehow undeserving of survival or that someone else would have been more deserving. The traumatic event may include; recovering from a lifethreating illness: a terrorist attack or war, mass accident and job loss in the middle of a major restructuring
at the workplace, among other things. Research has shown that at times, up to 90% of participants who had survived a traumatic event when others had died reported experiencing feelings of guilt. For COVID-19, it has been reported among people who suffered less severe form of the disease, who survived a severe form, people who did not fall sick while many around them were falling sick and even dying, and even people who feel they were lucky to be vaccinated while others died before the vaccine became available. It has been found that the most vulnerable people in the COVID-19 era are those who know someone who has died from the disease or had a serious illness from it. Others have blamed themselves for infecting loved ones. Survivors’ guilt has also been seen to manifest among people who have experienced more
ideal outcomes during the pandemic. For instance, those whose loved ones are healthy and/or aren’t affected by the negative economic effects of the pandemic.
Signs and symptoms People with survivor’s guilt can often experience other symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including: flashbacks of the traumatic event, obsessive thoughts about the event, irritability and anger, feelings of helplessness and disconnection, fear and confusion, lack of motivation, sleep difficulties like finding it hard to fall or stay asleep, headaches, nausea or stomachache, social isolation, and even thoughts of suicide. Some people may see the world as an unfair and unsafe place.
Managing survivor syndrome For most people, survivor syndrome can be managed without the need for professional care. The first step towards healing is acknowledging that you are
experiencing guilt for having survived a traumatic experience. Remember that even if for many people your thoughts and feelings may sound irrational, in the medical field, it is a recognized response to trauma. Allow yourself to experience the feelings so that you can know what to address. Take time to process the guilt, grief, fear and loss that accompany a traumatic event and the loss of life. Tell yourself over and over that none of us have earned the gift of life and that your survival was not the cause of the bad outcome others experienced. Share feelings with family and friends; if they do not understand you, then seek out and connect with others, especially those that have experienced or are experiencing the same. Fellow survivors will provide a safe space for you to express yourself and ask questions about what you are experiencing. The practice of mindfulness (getting out of your thoughts and noticing your environment through the five senses) has been shown to be extremely helpful,
especially during flashbacks or periods of intense and painful emotions. Self-care exercises like; going for a walk or run, massage, eating healthy, spending time in company, reading, journaling, resting, volunteering, educating people about the experience, sending a care package like food or a present to someone who needs it … whatever activities you used to enjoy doing or feel like partaking in, can be handy. During this time, avoid drugs and alcohol because they can cause emotional disturbance and worsen survivor guilt, exacerbating especially, suicidal thoughts. For people with an active spiritual life, their faith and belief that God is in control of their lives and the world is extremely helpful in managing survivor guilt. For some, spirituality and faith are also important. If, however, these feelings are overwhelming, do not decrease or start to increase over time, it is important for you to seek help. Psychiatrists and counselors will be able to support you.
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