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Don’t dodge COVID only to get hit by guilt

Much media attention is paid to the lost and the grieving. What about the lucky ones who made it through OK?

Bill Mauldin struggled after becoming a star during World War II. He drew cartoons for the Sun-Times for 30 years.
Bill Mauldin struggled after becoming a star during World War II. He drew cartoons for the Sun-Times for 30 years.
AP

Bill Mauldin was haunted by World War II.

Not in the usual way, by traumatic memories of horror and battle. At 122 pounds, Mauldin was assigned to an Army motor pool. But he was a lousy driver, and by 1943 he was drawing for the Mediterranean edition for Stars & Stripes.

Sgt. Mauldin created a pair of classic cartoon characters, Willie & Joe, whose wise-cracking, unshaven slouch toward victory was contrary to well-scrubbed military propaganda. Soldiers loved them. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, at age 23, and his book of wartime drawings sold 3 million copies. It even worked to his advantage when he was wounded — slightly, a mortar fragment. He walked to an aide station to be treated, leading to a memorable cartoon: Joe approaches a medic, sitting at a table piled with Purple Hearts. “Just gimme th’ aspirin,” he mumbles. “I already got a Purple Heart.”

But after the war, his good fortune gnawed at Mauldin. He had trouble dealing with the fact that he benefited from such tragedy.

”I never quite could shake off the guilt feeling that I had made something good out of the war,” said Mauldin. “It wasn’t a nice feeling.”

No, it isn’t. And there has to be a lot of it going around, with this week being the first anniversary of the COVID epidemic seizing America, the mid-March 2020 pivot from ordinary, busy, crowded, life to isolation, hand sanitizer, masks and worries about toilet paper.

While the past year has been one of deepening national crisis and loss — millions sick, 525,000 Americans dead, countless jobs lost and businesses wrecked — for my family, personally, it’s been, well, nice. The boys came back from law school and studied at home. They baked bread. My job hummed along, even better, since I never have to go into the office. My wife and I go for long walks. If I had to describe my pandemic experience in one word, the word I’d choose is “blessed.”

A cartoon from “Up Front With Mauldin” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
“Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged battle-weary prisoners (News item)” reads the caption of a cartoon from “Up Front With Mauldin” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
WILLIAM MAULDIN, AP

I figured, the least I could do is shut up about it. Besides, maybe my turn just hasn’t come yet. Don’t spike the ball until you’re in the end zone.

But with vaccine distribution ramping up hope that most of us will be coming out OK, I thought it worthwhile to set aside my own qualms and raise a contrary note to all the media attention on suffering. Is it OK to come whistling through the carnage? Can we feel happy? Shouldn’t we try to feel bad, if only out of respect?

”The classic survivor’s guilt is, ‘I survived, but someone I love didn’t,’” said Dr. Joseph Kash, an oncologist at Edward-Elmhurst Health who often works with patients having difficulty after beating cancer.

Their relatives can have a hard time too.

“They feel, ‘We’re really the same, so why wasn’t it me?’” said Kash. “‘Why do I deserve to survive?’ There’s a greater guilt when it’s a closer friend or relative. There’s a feeling that, ‘I could handle this. It should be me.’”

Ironically, those who experience survivor’s guilt are often the better people — it “tends to hit people with high levels of empathy for others,” Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, told the American Heart Association.

A head shot of a doctor.
Dr. Joseph Kash, an oncologist at Edward-Elmhurst Health, often counsels patients who feel guilt after surviving cancer.
Provided photo

So what should those uneasy at passing through the lion’s den without a scratch do? First, don’t blame yourself.

“I don’t think anybody should beat up on themselves for having that sense of distance,” said Timothy Pearman, Director of Supportive Oncology at the Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Medicine. “You can experience both guilt or grief and also a really strong sense of appreciation. I’ve seen that in my patients. ‘I feel so fortunate I haven’t gotten COVID, yet still feel really sad.’”

Nothing’s wrong with celebrating COVID being driven back — our country rejoiced on V-J Day too. We didn’t hold a wake for the 420,000 Americans who died in the war, at least not then. Bill Mauldin overcame his unease, won a second Pulitzer Prize, kept his alcoholism at bay and lived to be 81.

”Everybody’s worrying about this stuff,” said Kash. “The flaws you have. But everybody has flaws. Human beings have an amazing ability to deal with things. By and large, people rise to the occasion and they deal with it.”