Having immediately isolated herself as soon as she started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 in October 2021, Christine, a communications educator and practitioner, could not believe that she unwittingly spread the virus to her entire household.
As the lone family member who would constantly go out for errands, she believes she did her best taking safety precautions, including double masking at home and only eating meals after everyone had theirs.
"The feeling of guilt was very bad, excruciating, and so difficult na hindi ko na dinamdam 'yung symptoms ko (I had moderate symptoms). When I saw my family's dire condition, lalo akong na-guilty kasi alam ko na walang ibang carrier kung hindi ako. I was supposed to be protecting them—had myself vaccinated, did all the precaution—but eventually, I was the one who brought the virus at home," she told reportr.
Christine went from being in denial to getting consumed by guilt. The feeling hasn't left her since, having only grown stronger as her 78-year-old mother struggled with COVID and eventually died.
"The guilt progressed while looking at my mother suffering all the critical symptoms, more so that we had COVID during the surge," Christine said, sharing how a lack of hospitals beds forced them into home care before being confined for 28 days.
"Perhaps, if I have been more careful, my mother would not be suffering—that would always come into my mind while taking care of her. Of course, it took a toll on me," she added, revealing how she lost eight kilos in a span of three weeks and would struggle to sleep due to persistent anxiety.
Christine's mother died in November of 2021, roughly a year and a half into the pandemic. At the time, over 45,000 Filipinos have died of COVID-19, a number that grown almost 10,000 more as of yesterday's tally. Globally, the death toll is at 5.7 million.
Beyond the harrowing statistics, there is what has grown to be a pandemic of grief that has been raging, too. For those who lost their loved ones to the virus, having immense feelings of guilt from surviving has become an all-too common feeling.
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What is 'survivor's guilt'?
Survivor’s guilt can grip up to 90% of survivors of catastrophic events like wars, plane crashes, road accidents, even toxic relationships, and yes, a global pandemic. Even if they aren't the direct cause or completely have nothing to do with an incident, survivor's guilt can still happen to a person, clinical psychologist Agnes Agbayani told reportr.
"It's a type of guilt that is more intense and prolonged. And in a way, the event is perceived to be unrealistic, so those who feel it tend to look at what happened to them as really more than what actually transpired," Agbayani said, noting that survivor's guilt is actually a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
For something as catastrophic as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has physical, mental, social, and economic costs, there are many ways in which one can develop the feeling.
It happens to health workers at the frontlines, whose colleagues died in duty especially back when COVID vaccines weren't developed yet and little was known about how the virus operates and can be treated. It also occurs among those who had to work on-site in their offices, or those had to go out for necessities or social reasons, and unwittingly brought the virus home, exposing their loved ones.
"Usually nga 'yung nagkakaroon ng ganitong survivor’s guilt, it’s either meron talaga silang nagawa o hindi nagawa. Bakit ako nag survive bakit hindi siya? Bakit ako gumaling bakit hindi siya? Bakit siya yung namatay hindi ako? Bakit sakin binigay yung respirator, bakit hindi sa kanya, eh mas kailangan niya? Bakit ako yung inuna hindi siya?," Agbayani said.
Living with survivor’s guilt
Bearing feelings of guilt is hard not just for one's mind, but also physically, as it can manifest through bodily symptoms that further affect one's way of life, Agbayani said. Survivors usually struggle with difficulty in sleeping, lack of appetite, and body ache.
"Of course andun din yung flashbacks, which is common talaga sa PTSD. You also overthink about what happened a lot, trying to go back to reassess what you could’ve done better," she said.
Agbayani said some people are also prone to depression and withdrawing from social connection, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. Hence, she recommends the following:
- Talk to someone about it. Sharing what you feel and your perspective about what happened to someone, especially a person you can trust, could validate your experience and help process what happened. There are also grief support groups you could seek, wherein you could find people going through the same thing who could make you feel less alone.
- Seek professional help. If one's grief becomes more than what they can bear, seeking the help of a mental health professional is advised. Over the pandemic, many counseling services have made themselves more accessible to the public, such as Ateneo Bulatao Center for Psychological Services, which offers free consultations.
- Practice kindness. It's important for one to put in the work of asking forgiveness, especially from their own self. Aside from self-care, one can also volunteer for community initiatives like donation drives and feeding programs, as studies have shown doing acts of kindness heals.
"To be honest, the extent of guilt I am feeling has not changed, I am just learning to live with it each day," Christine said of her moving on process. She's considering seeking help, but for now, it's also been therapeutic opening up to others and finding strength in her own resilience and the belief that "time heals".
"Although there’s this acknowledgement that the pandemic is affecting everyone, that nobody is safe, and that no matter how much you protect yourself and your family, the virus can still enter your household—the guilty feeling persists. I went through this phase when my late husband passed away, which took me years to convince myself that it wasn’t my fault. Perhaps, it will be that way too with my mother," she said.
The clinical psychologist cited in this story, Agnes Agbayani, MA, RPsy, is the executive director of The Life Changed Recovery Center, a private and professional treatment facility for individuals with addiction, psychiatric conditions, and/or behavioral problems. Call 3415-7964 for inquiries.