Grief’s most insidious hijacker

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

The times in our lives that feel broken are those times when we are facing loss, which is another way of saying that those are times when we are dealing with grief (acknowledged or unacknowledged) since grief is an inevitable outcome of loss.

Grief is hard enough to deal with, but it often comes with a hijacking sidekick that makes things even more difficult.

That sidekick is shame.

In her book I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), Brené Brown defines shame in the following way:

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

This is different from guilt, which is feeling as if an action we have taken doesn’t live up to our values or ideals. Guilt is believing that we have done something that we find to be unacceptable. Shame is believing that we are unacceptable.

Shame is painful and isolating at any time we might experience it, but when it hijacks our grief experience in the wake of loss, it can really make a mess of things.

First of all, shame isolates us at a time when we are most in need of our support systems. This belief that we are unworthy of belonging causes us to withdraw from the relationships that can best help us through the wilderness of grief just we need them most.

Second, grief is period when we define and create meaning for whatever loss we have experienced. When we move into that meaning-making process with the belief that we are fundamentally flawed and unworthy, it twists the meaning we might create in unhealthy ways, leaving us in even more pain and isolation that we were experiencing before.

When these two are mixed together, it’s not surprising that grief research has shown that shame can keep people stuck in prolonged spaces of unhealed grief.

It’s also not surprising that the hijacking of the grief experience by shame is so common. Even though grief is something that we all face in life, it’s an experience that’s seldom talked about very openly. This makes it easy for all kinds of unhealthy “rules” about how grief “should” be done to creep into our belief systems.

These often unspoken ideas about how we “should” be dealing with our grief are usually at the root of our shame (or the shame we direct toward others or that others direct at us).

Attempting to navigate these unspoken expectations from our families of origin, religious institutions, and general societal norms in the middle of navigating the experience of grief and loss makes it likely that we will at some point or another find ourselves believing that something is wrong with us with our experience doesn’t match the “shoulds” we are being fed.

This swampland of finding ourselves outside what is expected is an especially difficult place to be when we are already feeling so vulnerable in our grief. Shame blooms readily in such a place, and then sucks us in like quicksand to keep us stuck.

One of the best routes to freeing ourselves from shame in the grief experience is being able to recognize shame when it shows up, clearly recognizing the (often unspoken) expectations that are prompting the shame response, and being able to navigate your way to new strategies for dealing with these expectations through support, connection, and choice.

Because this is such a common issue in the grief experience, I’m going to spend the next few weeks looking at some the most common ways that shame gets a foothold during grief to help improve our resilience when shame comes knocking.

In the meantime, be on the lookout for how shame might be trying to sneak into your own experience of grief (or how it might have done so in the past).

What expectations have you faced (from others, in yourself, spoken or unspoken) about how grief “should” be experienced? How well did those expectations match your own experience?

What was the result of any mismatches that occurred between expectations and experience? How has that impacted your experience of grief and the loss that prompted it?

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