“…There has been little attention paid to the[sic] inhibitory functions of shame in the literature on death and mourning.”
From the Article “Shame” by Jeffery Kauffman, published in Encyclopedia of Death And Dying edited by Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman
In February of 2016 my mother died. It was my first experience with profound loss, and thus my first experience with grief. Sure, I’d felt sadness and loss when relationships ended, or when a period of my life came to a close, but I’d never experienced anything like the grief I felt with my mom’s death.
I could (and will) write about many of my experiences with grief, but I’m going to focus on the link I experienced between grief and shame. I’m not going to talk about shame related to the cause of my mother’s death (although I could), or feelings of shame related to my inability to help or save her (yep, could talk a lot about that too, and if you’re particularly interested in reading pieces about these kinds of shame you can find them here and here). I’m going to talk about something that I wasn’t expecting about grief: that it brought me face-to-face with my own feelings of shortcomings and shame, some of which were buried deep.
After the first wave of grief (the days and weeks that felt strange and surreal, like I was caught in a reality distortion field) began to subside, I felt open, raw, and vulnerable in ways I never had before–which is saying something, because I’m a very emotional and vulnerable person to begin with.
Now I’m going to say something about those days which may seem strange–although they were incredibly painful and difficult, there was also a profound sweetness to them. Sounds weird, but go with me for a sec. A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:
Now, my only quibble with this is that I think it would be more accurate to say “My heart is broken and that crack has created more space and so it also feels more open which is both painful and good.” But that is way less catchy. My grief made me more open to all the feelings, not just the sad ones. It also exposed some feelings I wasn’t aware I was harboring. This is where we get to the shame.
During that period I realized I was carrying around shame about my career, my sexuality, my finances, my gender, my ability to be a good partner, and (and here’s the real kicker) about my grief itself. How did I realize I was harboring shame about these things? Because I’d be having a conversation with my husband and all of a sudden I would find myself crying uncontrollably. Like, you’re having a hard time breathing and your voice jumps about 8 octaves you feel like you might vomit. So you shut your mouth and try to master your emotions and stop crying, but it’s just not happening.
“Hmmm,” I’d think when that happened, “there seems to be something here that I have strong feelings about.” I’d then try to dig a little deeper to figure out why I was weeping so profusely, and the answer was inevitably that I was feeling deficient and ashamed about myself in relation to what we were talking about. It happened so often that I started laughing (but while also sobbing) about it. And I
jokingly dubbed 2016 the Year of Shame.
But here’s the thing about talking about shame; In my experience, talking about shame is like exposing a vampire to sunlight. It weakens and eventually kills it. Even the act of simply identifying and naming the shame lessens it’s power, because shame can only control you if it is able to isolate and silence you.
The link I felt between grief and shame was so profound that I was surprised to find very little written about it when I searched the internets. The little I did find was more about the shame associated with survivor’s guilt than the effect of grief on uncovering one’s own feelings of shame related to their character and life choices. I did, however, find one article that mentioned the phenomenon I had experienced. It listed 7 “grief reactions” that prompt shame. I resonated with all of them, but especially reason number 6, which I’ve highlighted in bold.
“The following are examples of grief reaction that prompt shame. (1) The impact of loss triggers feelings of being out of control and vulnerable. Being out of control or anxious about loss of control prompts shame. (2) In grief one is particularly vulnerable to helplessness, separation, and abandonment anxieties, all of which are shame anxieties. (3) Persons may experience feelings of mortification and dread in grief over a death loss. These uncanny feelings are expressions of shame. (4) Feelings of self-blame may occur in reaction to death. Disturbance in self-regard, which are usually understood as guilt, tend to be, at a more fundamental level, shame… (5) A sense of utter aloneness may also prompt shame. Even though shame is called the social emotion (because it is an experience of oneself through the eyes of another, even when no other is involved), shame disconnects the self from both others and oneself… (6) A sense of violation of self, experienced as part of a grief reaction, is shame. Parts of the self that are exposed in grief leave the bereaved especially shame vulnerable. (7) The bereaved person is prone to further conceal the sense of exposure of the self that is present in each of these anxieties.”*
All of this–my own experience, the quotes and articles–is just to say that if you’re feeling your own shame in the midst of grief, that you are not alone.
More, invariably, to come on this topic.
Until next time,
The Cry Babe
*Kauffman, Jeffery (2001) Shame. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying [Google Book Version]. Retrieved from here.