Survivor’s Guilt Amid a Pandemic

By Tiffany Mullen, MSN, RN, ACCNS-P, CCRN Jun 10, 2020

Added to Collection

As COVID-19 first emerged in the United States, the future was unclear.

As COVID-19 first emerged in the United States, the future was unclear. I went to work as a clinical nurse specialist in a pediatric hospital wondering, “When will this hit my ICU?”

I filled my free time scrolling through news stories and social media posts of heartbreaking, yet inspirational accounts from nurses and physicians at “ground zero.” I saw the photos and stories of nurses with pressure wounds from masks or using trash bags and bandanas in place of hospital-issued PPE. I listened to webinars featuring innovative staffing models and allocation of resources to stretch capacities beyond comprehensible limits. But this was nothing close to my experience of COVID-19.

As the days, then weeks of preparation and constant changes went on at work, my overwhelming anticipatory anxiety transformed into this unexplainable feeling of guilt.

My experience of COVID has been this gut-wrenching helplessness and what I can only describe as survivor’s guilt. I was torn between the guilt of not enduring what is happening in the hot spots and watching other nurses in the opposite situation who face furloughs and layoffs. How can a pandemic cause such opposing situations in healthcare? And how do I belong in this category of “hero” when I am not caring for patients with COVID-19 and I am working half my time on-site and half at home? I even felt guilty going to the store early on a Sunday morning during “hero hours.”

Before verbalizing this feeling of guilt out loud for fear of sounding ridiculous, I immersed myself in any opportunity to hear the experiences of others. I listened to webinars and read news stories hoping to hear someone with this same feeling. I found myself drawn to the topic of resilience in a blog. Strategies to mitigate stress and cultivate resilience seemed inappropriate as a solution for what I was feeling, until I dug deeper into the recommendations.

Reaching out to others, practicing self-compassion and staying connected transformed my feeling of guilt into this realization: My contributions and work have value here and now.

After exercising these strategies and reaching out to others, I quickly discovered that I was not alone. To my surprise, there were critical care nurses experiencing similar emotions, whether they were in a community hospital with minimal exposure to cases or in a pediatric institution close to heavily impacted adult centers.

A colleague reminded me that we are heroes every day, and although we may not be currently caring for a high volume of patients with COVID-19, we are still there for the critically ill patients in our community.

So, instead of feeling guilty, I will exercise my resilience and ability to adapt and continue my contribution by providing optimal care to any patient who comes through our doors. Maybe your contribution is to donate at a community blood drive or report to a travel assignment in a crisis area. Regardless of your situation, we are in this together and we will continue to be unstoppable.

How are you being unstoppable during the pandemic?