A dear friend is killed in a car accident. A few months later, I don’t feel that I’ve sufficiently "gotten over it” and people start telling me to move on. So I hide my grief, push my chin up, and allow the cataclysm inside of me to tremble in perpetuity.
I have a seizure. I don’t get better immediately, and find myself wading through a cesspool of confusion and exhaustion. People are helpful at first, but after a while many seem to stop caring, so I pretend that my epilepsy doesn't exist and tuck its terrors deep inside of me.
I am abused by someone who claimed to be my friend. Since I can't possibly understand why he would ever hurt me, I convince myself it's my fault and act as if everything is hunky dory.
Sound familiar? If so, it means you’ve experienced one of the most lethal, pervasive desecrations of humanity: shame in the wake of grief.
It’s a terrible, stupid and completely unacceptable combination, but it’s everywhere.
When I hear people speak about their grief, the most consistent response I receive is one of shame. A mother tells me she feels there’s something wrong with her because people are starting to judge her insufficient "grief progress" a year after her son’s death.
A man who's lost his job and desperately trying to find work to support his family tells me he feels he has no right to be upset because other people have it "worse."
A woman who faced years of abuse at her father's hand says she feels guilty for her pain because she should be over it by now.
I hear this over and over again. And it rips me apart every time.
The crazy thing about shame is that it is, by definition, humiliation felt for doing something wrong.
Think about that for a moment. It would be completely insane to tell someone that grieving a devastating loss is wrong, yet so many of us carry on as if it were wrong.
This does not have to be.
When your life's been torn apart, the potential for humiliation is exacerbated to infinity. To add a layer of poisonous shame to your already turmoiled position is not only scary, it's dangerous.
Yet so many people who come to me feel profound shame for even feeling like they need to grieve at all.
So I'm going to be as clear as I possibly can: You have permission to grieve. Grieving does not mean that you wallow in despair for the rest of your life. It means you give voice, you give space, to the horrors you have endured, and bear witness to them. In whatever way that unfolds.
I study adversity. I’m constantly examining the myriad of ways people respond to stress, pain, loss and obstacles of any kind. My own process of learning to navigate them is the one and only reason I’ve come as far as I have, despite living with multiple chronic health conditions and facing momentous loss in my life.
I've found that whenever I begin a conversation around change and growth amid adversity, I invariably return to grief. This happens because its absence is what inhibits us from living above all else. Our failure to allow ourselves to fully immerse in grief sabotages the enactment of action and showing up in life.
We've got it backwards: We assume that grieving precludes our ability to live. But it is not grieving that precludes our actually living.
As I have said before, grief is not an obstacle. But I'd take it a step further: grief is not optional. It must occur if one is to find new life in death.
While there are many reasons people feel they cannot grieve, shame is the most disabling. We are besieged with shame in our grief journeys, and we do everything we possibly can to hide it. The most horrific aspect of shame is that it's silent. You don’t really see it. It is a silent killer.
Shame causes people to feel as if they don't have permission to grieve in a way that is coterminous with who they are. They are told to get better, get over it, look on the bright side, and on and on.
None of this helps, and is why I rail so mightily against platitudes: they are ultimately shame-based, cheap, ridiculous vehicles of disconnection.
The combination of grief and shame is the most wounding force in the lexicon of human emotion. That seems like a scandal to me. But we not only fail to treat it as a scandal, we treat it as if it doesn’t exist.
That’s where people get grief—and life—all screwed up. They believe that grief is an obstacle when it’s anything but. Instead,
Grieving is the pilgrimage by which you create the conditions such that you are able to face the inevitable obstacles that arise amid loss.
In other words, if we don’t give ourselves permission to grieve, we don't end up facing our obstacles, we become our obstacles.
This is why so many carry on aimlessly, hopelessly, in the throes grief. They feel they have no choice but to ask: what the hell am I even doing here? Why am I alive? What's the point of all this suffering?
It’s kind of hard to find a purpose for your existence if you are not permitted to grieve what you have lost. This is exactly what we do all the time, and in so doing, we allow the ludicrous assumption that grieving is synonymous with victimhood to endure, when that's not the case at all. We seek to create "opportunity" in the immediate aftershock of grief and act as if doing so will make everything better. It won't.
When we rush to create opportunity in the aftermath of calamity we effectively stop the grieving process, and that’s where I have a significant problem. Loss must be felt for all that it is. It has to suck, because it does, in fact, suck.
As CS Lewis said in his masterpiece A Grief Observed:
The death of a beloved is an amputation.
He's right. This doesn't only apply to the death of a beloved, it applies to the death of everything we lose. Without grieving, that amputation morphs into an abyss of hell, terrorizing every part of our lives. This is why shame is so dangerous: it is the chief instigator by which that abyss is created.
I’m all for showing up and creating new life after loss. At the end of the day we are still here and it is up to us to use the time we have. So we must make choices as to what to do with that reality, both in the victories and the horrors. But when people try to hurry you along and shame you when you've been devastated, they jump out of the tragedy and straight into the future. The honest picture is far more complicated.
After all, I've come a very long way and I'm doing some extraordinary things in my life, none of which would have happened had I not taken focused, determined action during and after my losses. But my amazing journey would not have been possible had I not learned to fully immerse myself in grief when I needed to. Shame has always been the great inhibitor when I've not allowed this to happen.
The reality is that before you do anything after a tragedy, you're going to grieve. There is no prescriptive way to grieve, but grieve you must. And shame has no role in that.
So you immerse yourself in the grieving process. In time, when opportunities begin to emerge, you can serve others, show up in your own way, and provide refuge to those who need you, via the action of your wounded, beautiful self.
The writer Christina Rasmussen has this to say about loss:
Time does not heal all wounds. Action does.
I completely concur, and I would add that the action is imperfect. It’s messy. It does not follow a linear path, it is not captive to a prescription. It is the result of a thousand wails manifested. Shame is the greatest paralyzer of this action.
When shame is killing you
If you're swallowed by shame, it's entirely possible that you feel incredibly guilty: for your loss, for feeling your loss, for surviving, for not doing a better job with yourself.
I know these feelings all too well. They're not rational. But they weave their way inside of us and refuse to leave.
If you're experiencing any kind of guilt or shame for your grief, I invite you to look into your loss, and utter these words:
It’s not your fault.
Read that again:
It’s not your fault.
I don't expect you to believe me right now. If you say those words aloud, you probably won't believe them yourself. This is ok. But keep these words close to you. Meditate upon them. Journal them into your heart. They won't "fix" everything, but they might offer the seeds of understanding and compassion you so desperately need.
In addition, find someone who will bear witness to you. No matter how alone or disconnected you might feel, I guarantee there is ONE person out there who is willing to suffer alongside you. I've had a few people like this in my life. Every one of them played a role in saving me.
I also want to make clear that in some cases, a licensed therapist should play this role. Grief is really hard. If you feel that you're ready to give up, please seek out professional help. And do not feel shame at the thought of needing it. None of us can do this alone.
When you feel the shame—like really, really feel it—allow the feelings to rise. Become aware of them. This will suck at first, but by allowing them to ride they'll immediately begin to lose some of their power over you. In time, you might begin to get a sense of where the shame is making its home inside of you.
No matter what, remember that you have every right to grieve. No one gets to tell you that your grief is wrong.
Shame does has a proper role in our experience of humanity. But as it relates to grief, it is unacceptable.
You deserve better.
I'm Tim, and The Adversity Within is a blog dedicated to examining the topic of resilience in the face of adversity, while inspiring readers to stand headstrong in their grief and fight for their own evolution. Living with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I explore topics like post-traumatic growth, survival, and self-reliance. No one should face adversity alone. Subscribe to my mailing list below for free weekly writings delivered to your inbox, and follow me along on Facebook and Twitter.