Pauline Brantley doesn’t know where she got COVID-19. She does know where her three kids and her husband picked it up, though: They got it from her.
Brantley, 51, of Los Angeles is vaccinated and regularly wears an N-95 mask but still got COVID. And even though she isolated immediately after testing positive and wore the mask at home, two days before Christmas every member of her family got it too.
“They went down like dominoes,” Brantley says. She has been coping with the guilt of passing COVID on ever since.
As the highly contagious omicron variant races around the world, managing to evade masks, vaccines and boosters, it feels easier than ever to get COVID-19 — and easier than ever to give COVID to someone else. For Brantley, a lot of her initial guilt came from ruining the holidays, and once she realized her kids were suffering, her guilt intensified.
“I didn’t really have a fever, but the kids all had fevers and they were really just miserable. So once ... I saw them suffering I felt worse than I did before,” she says. “It sucks to be sick, especially over Christmas. I just felt so bad.”
Practice COVID compassion
Brantley is not alone in feeling guilty about passing along the virus. It’s something that Elizabeth Cohen, a therapist in New York City, is seeing in her patients. “A lot of people are grappling with the guilt of having passed COVID to someone else,” she says. “People feel like, ‘If I’m a good person, I would have protected everybody.’ And it’s like, no, you are a good person — it’s that this virus is super sneaky.”
Lucy McBride, M.D., an internist in Washington, D.C., is also seeing feelings of shame among her patients who have contracted COVID-19. “A common theme is when my patients call me they say, ‘I feel so guilty. I feel so badly that I am sick when I was so careful,’” she says. “You have to understand that when you have a highly transmissible variant like omicron in circulation, it’s not a failure of our mitigation efforts. It’s really just the intrinsic nature of the virus.”
That’s why she gets frustrated when she hears her patients are feeling culpable. “If it’s a hurricane and you get wet, that’s not your fault, right?” McBride says.
Still, like most mothers, Brantley couldn’t help but feel terrible watching her kids (and husband) get sick, especially since she brought the virus into the home.
She was surprised, though, at how badly she felt about exposing her coworkers when she went into the office one day before she knew she was infected. Even more surprising was how bad they made her feel about it.
“I spent a lot of time worrying that I put them at risk,” Brantley says. “But they spent a lot of time being mad at me for possibly putting them at risk, even though there's no way I could have known.”
It’s that mentality that frustrates McBride. “We have to realize that getting COVID and spreading COVID is not a moral failure,” she says. “It's really important to take the shame away from getting sick and accidentally infecting someone else, because this virus is so contagious. It's sort of inevitable that we will all be exposed to it at some point.”
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Give yourself a break
Cohen would like people to give themselves a break — and others, too. “Everyone is looking for a scapegoat,” Cohen says. “Everyone is looking for someone to blame for this unimaginable trauma that we've been going through. You can take a small piece of responsibility, like, ‘Oof, I was the one who brought it, but I didn't purposely bring it and that's just what happens.’ We can’t control everything.”
So how are we supposed to shake the guilt?
“Let's talk about all the things that you did do to protect people. You got vaccinated, you got boosted, you took tests, you wore a mask,” Cohen says. “Why are you discounting all the things that you did do and just focusing on the fact that you may have passed on what happens to be an incredibly contagious variant?”
McBride has been trying to teach her patients about how mental health and physical health are part of our overall human needs. Compassion plays a role in both.
“After 22 months of stacked losses and traumas,” she says, “we owe it to ourselves to exercise compassion for each other and compassion for ourselves as we navigate very complicated times.”
And if you do get COVID-19 and perhaps pass it along to someone else, McBride adds that “feeling guilty and shaming ourselves only makes us feel worse” — and no one needs that during a pandemic.
As for Brantley, her husband and children seem to have fully recovered from COVID and she has rescheduled the canceled Christmas vacation for spring break, both of which are helping assuage some of her guilt.
Melissa Locker is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, home and garden, and arts and culture. She has also written for Southern Living, Time and The Guardian.