The Journey From Guilt to Gratitude

When my late husband got his cancer diagnosis, we both felt shock, fear, and an instant sense that everything that seemed important only an hour ago,  just…wasn’t. At least that’s how I felt, and that’s how he later said he felt. But I guess there is really no way I could have understood what he was going through.

The wonderful man I am now married to was also widowed. Tim and I have often discussed how we tried to understand what our spouses must have struggled with, but, really… how could we? We may have lived through our own trauma over their loss, but could it ever compare to their trauma? And then the questions: why did they get sick and die and we didn’t? Why do we get to continue to witness our kids’ life stages; their successes, weddings, grandkids, and they didn’t? I’ve since come to understand these feelings are normal and they even have a  name; Survivor Guilt,  defined as when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived something another did not.

Tim and I recently tested positive for Covid-19. We were both surprised and scared when we got the results from a test we took out of an abundance of caution, not because we really thought we had it. We both experienced a few sniffles and thought “it’s just a cold, but maybe we should get the test.” We had no fever, breathing issues, or any of the other well-known symptoms, and we couldn’t imagine how we were exposed.  We traced back our steps and thought about everything we have done, the places we’ve gone, and couldn’t come up with much. We follow the rules. We wear masks, do curbside grocery pick-up, and carry-out to support our local places. We’ve since learned Tim had possible exposure, but still no real way of knowing because it’s so community spread now. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear, as every day we waited for the other shoe to drop. We are both over 60. We followed the stories of how it can change overnight. You feel good and then you don’t. Would a fever develop? Would we go from breathing easily to feeling short of breath? Would one or both of us end up in ICU? Would I lose him… or he lose me? Is this what our spouses, Phil and Donna felt like so many years ago?

Our isolation period was uneventful until I woke up with no sense of smell or taste. It happened overnight. I was fine and then I wasn’t. I put lavender lotion on my hands and noticed it didn’t have a smell. Then I went downstairs and was surprised when I saw coffee brewing because normally the smell fills our tiny condo. The realization hit, and I opened the bag of coffee beans and took a deep breath. Nothing. Then I was like a madwoman, opening and smelling jars of condiments, canned cat food, and peanut butter. Nothing.

As of this writing, I still have no smell or taste and have experienced some headaches and fatigue, but nothing compared to what so many have gone through. Tim is symptom-free. The experts say we are well past the contagious stage, although I’ve heard it could be weeks or months before my symptoms resolve. Although I feel a sense of relief and a sort of mental freedom, I’m struck again, with that survivor’s guilt. Why did a young and healthy colleague of mine spend 14 days in ICU fighting for his life? Why are 3000 people dying daily in our country…more than 320,000 in 9 months, and we have a mild case?

All I can do is try to turn this unproductive guilt into gratitude and honor lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic that should (I hope) last for many years to come. When we are sick, with anything, stay home. Mask-wearing is a good idea during cold and flu season, as is social distancing and hand-washing. Being considerate of others when you could spread germs is just being smart.

And the biggest lesson? Appreciating things I may have taken for granted in the past: spending in-person time with family and friends, traveling, live music, going to a coffee shop, wine bar, or my favorite restaurant. And hugs.

The little things really are enough.