A Lingering Effect of the Pandemic: ‘Never-Ending’ Guilt

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Talking it through with a trusted friend or, if your thoughts are pervasive, with a therapist, can help you analyze your thinking and any assumptions you might be making.

Stephanie Hills, 68, who lost both of her parents earlier this year, regrets that she wasn’t able to see her mother, who had Covid, after she was admitted to the hospital. At the time, Ms. Hills had Covid, too.

When she spoke to her mother on the phone, “I kept on telling her I’d come back and wouldn’t forget her,” said Ms. Hills, who lives in Davie, Fla. But her mother was so weak she couldn’t respond.

The hospital rabbi suggested that she tell her mother that it was OK for her to go.

“I couldn’t say it,” Ms. Hills said. “I wanted her to fight and get better.”

This only compounded her feelings of guilt, Ms. Hills said recently.

People are hard-wired to engage in counterfactual thinking, Dr. Tangney said. In other words, if something negative happened, they will dwell on that experience and wonder if there was anything they could have done that would have changed the outcome. “If only I had left a little earlier,” for example, or “If only I had said something different.”

This kind of thinking can be practical in instances where we want to find new solutions or alternative ways of doing things.

“We’re just looking for ways to get control, so that X doesn’t happen again,” Dr. Tangney said.

But if it’s applied to circumstances that are beyond our control, it can also reinforce feelings of guilt, she added.