Coping with COVID Survivor’s Guilt

Perspective from a Manhattan psychiatrist who’s had experience dealing with disasters

| 09 Jul 2021 | 10:23

Through about forty years of practicing psychiatry, Dr. Alan Manevitz has borne the anguish of many tragedies, whether it be tearful firemen atop the rubble of 9/11, shocked Louisianans amidst the driftwood of Hurricane Katrina or the dying victims of this past year’s coronavirus.

A New York doctor with house-call dedication to his patients, the Brooklyn-born, Sutton Place-based physician stood at the gates of the pandemic last year and saw up close one of its most forceful aftereffects: survivor’s guilt.

The phenomenon first became ascribed to Holocaust survivors in postwar America and connotes the often profound sense of inner torment that plagued those who outlasted Hitler’s Europe. As Manevitz, who is in his mid-60s, explains, survivor’s guilt predates even World War II and has been “around forever.” Yet the affliction is all too relevant in the wake of the coronavirus. “Everybody’s coming to the virus from a personal place,” he says in a phone interview.

“This is something that was a worldwide event,” Manevitz continues. “There are people who have survivor’s guilt, and there are people who might have survivor’s guilt, because they know somebody who got coronavirus and maybe succumbed to it. So there’s the randomness of, ‘why that person got it and not me,’ and people search for reasons. It was very easy at the beginning to say, ‘Okay, that’s an elderly person, that’s somebody who had an illness’ and sort of say, ‘Okay, that’s them, not me’ or, conversely, you were in that group and felt very vulnerable.”

As the pandemic raged and the city’s death toll surged, the doctor — who served on the emergency teams at the World Trade Center attacks in 1993, was a first responder at 9/11, and helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — began feeling susceptible himself. He started, however, taking calls in the middle of the night from one of the hospitals he’s affiliated with, NewYork-Presbyterian, and from others, too.

“People kind of knew that I had helped out in disasters, and I was getting calls from nurses and doctors, residents and fellows, who were feeling their own personal fear,” he says. “There was fear of not having enough supplies, for example, or fear of catching the virus and bringing it home to your family, so there was tremendous anxiety.”

Unfortunately for not just medical professionals but for some people of various backgrounds across the city, there also lingered a sense of guilt.

Feelings of Hopelessness

Manevitz notes that the symptoms of survivor’s guilt — which is essentially one of the elements of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — are broad and include depression, difficulties with appetite and energy, feelings of hopelessness and even suicidal thinking. He says that this type of guilt is “also dependent on one’s personality traits.”

While someone may come out of a catastrophe more composed and resume life more peacefully, for instance, another may have a significantly harder time doing so, due in part to individual characteristics and genetics.

The affliction can markedly darken one’s outlook, but Manevitz states that, “The way you treat this guilt is to kind of verbalize it and use your social network to help yourself.” He says that many people still grieve and carry not only post-traumatic stress but a more acute stress. “You try to help people forgive themselves,” he adds, and encourage them “to do things for others and take action, such as exercising and keeping yourself healthy so that you can then aid others.”

He also notes that “Feeling guilty doesn’t mean you are guilty, and you can feel happy about your own good luck,” echoing a sentiment that many other New Yorkers seemingly hold as they walk the increasingly brightened avenues.

Baseball Memorabilia

The doctor has traversed the country, and is a modern renaissance man with walls of books, but he emanates the warm frankness of the workaday New Yorker. Presiding over an office that overlooks the East River where baseball memorabilia such as a framed home plate beams under lamplight, Manevitz embodies the resilience of the city. He knows that New Yorkers can keep coping with the coronavirus and its residual survivor’s guilt.

“I think that the issue with COVID, as opposed to other tragedies such as airplane crashes, hurricanes and 9/11, was that people were more unified,” he says. He admits that he was shocked at “the disbelief that seemed to occur about what was a public health hazard” but says that people can “figure out what to do,” and reflect “on what’s important in life, like, ‘Do I want to keep doing this rat race sort of thing to keep my head above ground or should I do something more meaningful?’”

As summer continues and New York revives, Dr. Manevitz believes that “people need to be patient with themselves” and, if they feel comfortable, eat at a restaurant or sit under the sun at a concert in the park. The guilt and the ghosts may still be there, hovering in the sky, but life still blooms with possibility.

“People kind of knew that I had helped out in disasters, and I was getting calls from nurses and doctors, residents and fellows, who were feeling their own personal fear.” Dr. Alan Manevitz