Podcast: COVID has left many with survivor’s guilt. How can we process this onslaught of ‘cascading collective traumas’?

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Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

At least 580,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and this official tally probably omits hundreds of thousands of uncounted deaths.

Because each death leaves an average of nine close relatives bereaved, roughly 5 million Americans have been grieving parents, children, siblings, spouses, or grandparents at a time when funerals, bedside goodbyes, and other rituals of mourning and loss have been disrupted.

Some may feel guilt about surviving, as did New Yorkers who narrowly missed the 9/11 attacks, or gay men who were “spared at random” by HIV during the 1980s. Some grievers may not heal for a long time.

“This has been an ongoing set of cascading collective traumas that have really not abated,” says [psychologist] Roxane Cohen Silver.

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“I don’t feel that we’re doomed,” Silver told me. “I do still believe that we will get through this.”

She and other experts I talked with noted that people are resilient, and often more so than they realize. But they also agreed that the rhetoric of individual resilience can often be used to plaster over institutional failures: the shortage of mental-health-care providers, the labyrinthine insurance system, the lack of support from employers, the stigma around seeking care at all, and the societal tendency to bottle grief.

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