The Very Real Problem of Guilt

With Covid-19, we are drowning in statistics. Every day, I see the number of new cases, the number of hospitalisations, the number of deaths. For my country and the rest of the world.

They are overwhelming, and it is hard to take them all in.

At the same time, there are plenty of human stories. The deaths of husbands and wives within days of each other. The deaths of one without being able to see the other. The very tired and over-worked health care workers and others.

All of these are powerful and moving stories.

But there is one kind of story that I simply have not seen told at all. Perhaps it is there, and I have missed it. It is also very painful ­– perhaps too painful to write about.

This concerns the people who are left behind feeling enormously guilty because they may have contributed to the death of their loved one.

The human psyche

I am not a psychologist of any kind, but I look around me, and I know that human beings are very prone to a sense of guilt.

Your husband is unhappy – is it your fault? Your child is confused and distressed – did you contribute to this situation in any way? Your mother feels neglected – is this down to you?

Especially women. We do guilt very easily. I don’t know why.

Now, we know we tend to feel mildly guilty if we accidentally gave a friend a cold, because we talked to them longer than was necessary when we met by chance.

And we feel very guilty if our actions contributed to another person’s problems ­– allowing them to drink and drive, for instance, when we should have urged them not to have that third or fourth glass of wine.

But surely, we must feel very guilty indeed if we accidentally passed on Covid-19, because we thought we were disease free when we weren’t. That is the Big one.

Covid-19 is guilt waiting to happen

There are so many ways that anyone with an ounce of sensitivity could begin to feel guilty these days. Covid-19 is passed from one person to another so easily, we must often be part of a possible chain.

Sometimes there are things we did – imagining somehow that it was safe – that look downright thoughtless in retrospect.

Did we need to make that Thanksgiving journey? Should we have gone to that large engagement party?

Of course, in each case, we meant well – to see an aging father, living on his own, to congratulate the bride and groom. But that meant getting into crowds, and we know that that’s where the virus lurks.

But the worst of it is that the people we affect are very frequently the people we love the most. We hugged a grandchild and that led to illness in the family. We visited a sister-in-law, which passed it on to all of her family.

Why oh why, we think afterward, did we not stop and think?

My personal concerns

I personally have not, to date, contracted the virus nor has anyone in my family. But my concern about the potential guilt of those left behind has certainly coloured my decisions.

It is the small children I worry most about. What if either grandson were to visit us when unknowingly carrying the virus, i.e., with no symptoms, and accidentally infected me or my husband?

And what would they feel if we died? Of course, they would be devastated by that fact in any case, but to live the rest of their lives feeling that they had killed Granny or Granddad cannot bear thinking about.

This has certainly affected my views about a potential visit. I just can’t do that to them.

There was a campaign in the UK called ‘Don’t Kill Your Gran,” which some people thought was funny, but it is very serious indeed. Not only for Gran but for the person who did so.

It cannot be much better for people of any age. Yet it must have happened many times over.

Of course, I am concerned for the health care workers feeling over-strained. Of course, I feel for all the people who died over the past nine months or so. But stop a second and think of all those left behind, wishing they had taken a different course on one particular day.


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