Survivor guilt and the pandemic: A Pagan perspective

TWH – People, who live through epidemics, mass shootings, natural disasters, and wars, can develop what is known as survivor guilt. Survivor guilt can result after mass tragedies, and is due to people experiencing guilty for staying alive.

Image credit: John Hain via Pixabay

Two recent articles discussed survivor guilt and COVID-19. The prior pandemic of HIV occasioned a great deal of writing about survival guilt. For a Pagan perspective, the Wild Hunt recently spoke with Holli Emore M.Div., Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary.

Survivor Guilt and COVID 19

A recent New York Times article, “It’s Time to Talk About Survivor’s Guilt,” discussed survivor guilt and COVID 19. People with survivor guilt cannot understand why they survived, when so many others did not.

The author, Corinne Purtill, defined survivor guilt as “feelings of shame or regret experienced by someone who lived through a crisis.” Sometimes, people feel intense regret. Joy disturbs some people. Others can’t understand why they’re still breathing.

Purtill said, “With survivor’s guilt, there is no single wrong to atone for or person to make amends to. It’s an ongoing argument with a faceless inner judge.“

The pandemic put people into extremely challenging situations. Yet, sometimes, survivors would feel shame if they failed to experience the worst of COVID-19.

Clinical psychologist Tali Berliner felt survival guilt is normal. Berliner stressed the importance of transforming “those feelings into a force that helps the survivor move forward, rather than trapping them in the past.”

In particular, Berliner suggests reframing the question from “Why was I spared?” to “How can I use the fact that I was spared?”

A Pagan view

Holli Emore said, “Survivor’s guilt is a common reaction to being spared a calamity that befalls others. Unlike the guilt of having violated a moral boundary, the survivor may be thrown into an existential crisis, or what chaplains call a crisis of faith.”

“Why would a loving god allow this to happen? Why them and not me? If only I had been there, I might have been able to save them. I don’t know what I believe any more.”

Holli Emore

Holli S. Emore

A member of the Pagan clergy and author of the recent book, Constellated Ministry: A Guide For Those Serving Today’s Pagans, Emore has provided pastoral care at fires and mass shootings. The people for whom she provides care may not identify as Pagan. She describes her primary role as listening and affirming.

She said, “When someone asks, ‘Why did this happen?’ my genuine response is, ‘I don’t know, and I can’t imagine what you must be feeling.’ To those facing a crisis of faith, I affirm that their god does indeed love them and would not have wanted any of them to suffer as they are.”

Emore continued, “This is the gift that a Pagan minister can offer; we can without hesitation provide caring support free of an assumption that divine forces have failed.”

Three COVID-19 survivor guilt stories

A recent NPR article, “Racked With Guilt, Some COVID-19 Survivors Are Asking, ‘Why Me?” examined COVID 19 survivor guilt using the stories of three people.

Debbie Kosta, 52, was on a ventilator for over three weeks, nearly dying. She survived. Others did not. She felt self-blame, anxiety, and helplessness – all common symptoms of survivor guilt. When she was re-learning how to walk, she dedicated each step to the people she knows who didn’t make it.

Rachel Sunshine, 44, had several serious pre-existing conditions which put her at high risk for death from COVID-19. She survived COVID, but her heart condition worsened. She began to feel guilty for still being alive.

Sunshine said, “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.”

Both Kosta and Sunshine participate with Survivor Corps, a national network that not only offers support for COVID-19 survivors, but also a variety of resources related to COVID-19 that include recent reports and medical research, FAQs, and resources for physicians.

Social worker and clinical professor at NYU, Linda Lausel-Bryant, 58, and her husband both developed COVID-19. While she remained largely asymptomatic, her husband had to be hospitalized, but he survived.

Lausel-Bryant and her husband faced another layer of survival guilt. They are both highly educated Black professionals. In contrast, marginalized communities of color have had some of the worst COVID 19 outcomes.

Lausel-Bryant said their local hospitals were a “mess.” Through a connection with a colleague, her husband was able to be transferred to a better hospital and receive a higher standard of care. She acknowledged that was an avenue simply not available to a lot of people in communities of color.

Now she focuses on gratitude for how things worked out. Lausel-Bryant and her husband are recommitting to advocating for remedies for this type of inequality.


Image credit: Stas Sutulo from Pixabay

Survivor guilt in the HIV pandemic

Another pandemic struck the world forty years ago – HIV. Both HIV negatives and positives experienced survivor guilt. Among HIV negatives, it weakened their motivation to remain HIV negative.

The Bay Area Reporter (BAR) has covered LGBT+ news in San Francisco for over 50 years. Its archives store a “real time” account of the lived experience of the HIV epidemic in that city.

In the BAR issue of April 5, 1990, Walt Odets, Ph.D., wrote a Guest Editorial. He wrote it to correct NBC’s summation of his statements. NBC had reported that Odets said that gay men wanted to get HIV out of their loneliness. He considered that a misrepresentation of his statements.

Odets said that “many men suffered psychologically from serious depression, anxiety, and survivor guilt, and from an unconscious confusion of psychological identity between being gay and having AIDS.”

This complex of emotions, conscious and unconscious drove the unsafe sex that led to new HIV cases. In contrast, loneliness is a normal part of life. Survivor guilt can lead to unsafe behaviors but also sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health issues that result from surviving traumatic stress.

The January 21, 1993, issue of BAR contained, printed a Letter to the Editor from gay psychotherapist, Thomas Moon. In that letter, he reported how survivor guilt had affected his HIV-negative clients. He described them as caregivers, lovers, and support persons of HIV-positive men. Survivor guilt resulted from the “challenges of an environment where mass death is an omnipresent reality.”

In the BAR issue of December 20, 2001, Jeffrey Leiphart, Ph.D., wrote a Guest Editorial about HIV prevention. In that editorial, he said that survivor guilt was one reason for new HIV cases among gay men. He quoted one guy’s explanation for why he took sexual risks. “My lovers and friends are either infected, sick, or dead. I’m so full of grief and guilt that just want (unconsciously) to get infected and join them.”

Emore provided a Pagan perspective on survivor guilt. She said, “Pagans understand that life happens, death happens, sometimes with no apparent logic. But we also know that the world is endlessly creative, continually regenerating and renewing itself, which gives us a foundation of calm compassion.”

She continued, “Those of us called to Pagan leadership and to ministry should be ready to stand with the survivors among us as they face the challenges of healing.”

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