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  • Writer's pictureEric Fisher

shame in the face of suicide loss

Updated: Feb 14


A person feeling shame for not doing more to help someone who died by suicide.
Shame corrodes the very part of yourself that believes you are capable of change.

Shame.


It's one of the most painful and most misunderstood emotions.


In the face of grief, shame can manifest for various reasons. The type of loss may factor into play. If I experience a spiritual loss, such as losing a connection to a kind of religious faith, then two directions are often gone. One, I project anger and frustration at a deity and other people in the religious group who may ostracize me. On the other hand, I may believe I am a terrible person for experiencing a loss of faith, a lack of connection with others in a faith-based community, and a lack of direction when it comes to spiritual connection.


Another loss where this comes into play is divorce. I may believe I'm bad for causing this, even though there are two sides to the street, and the partner plays their part. I may feel responsible for splitting up a family, making a child take on a parentified role, and seeing ties with friends and supportive in-laws dissolve.


Another place we see shame come up with grief, but not necessarily the final example, is with someone we know dearly who dies by suicide. Why didn't I do something to help them? Why didn't I see the signs they were struggling? Why could they not reach out to me? I should have noticed the warning signs.


Yet I did not.


The behaviours showed something was amiss. Something was off. A dark tragedy was awaiting around the corner.


Shame pervades the conscious because I did not see something or I blew something out of proportion that had little to nothing to do with what happened to my partner, friend, family member, co-worker, or whatever relation they were to me. I may maximize in my head a statement I said to them a few days before the suicide occurred. In my head, it caused them to die in the way they did. The shame wants you to think so. That doesn't mean it needs to be held as the ultimate truth.


I know professionally what it is like to know someone who dies by suicide. I worked with this person in my first year or so out of graduate school. I had to stare at a parent who came into the clinic and demanded to know whether the client spoke about them during the counselling sessions. I couldn't answer. I know the client did, but I could not and wanted to honor the client's confidentiality wishes even in death.


I know what the family member wanted because I desired to know the same: why?


Why did they choose to do what they did? Suicide leaves so many unanswered questions for the ones left behind. Not only about the person who took their own life but also about the ones who wonder if they had anything to do with what happened. I asked myself the same questions after the suicide. Why did I not see the warning signs as a mental health clinician? What was my part in this? I felt the guilt and shame. I was a bad counsellor for not knowing.


Sooner or later, I learned I was not bad for not seeing the writing on the wall before the tragedy happened. I was a person who was going through grief involving shame that was not justified for me to feel. I had to process through the feelings to come to an understanding. This process goes for anyone experiencing the loss of someone by suicide.


Brené Brown (2010) states three things about what keeps the intensity of shame firing on all cylinders: secrets, silence, and judgment. I wholeheartedly concur.


The secrets we keep inside will fester and profoundly increase shame. Not being able to share our woes, disappointments, longings, and experiences. By keeping secrets, we stay in silence without our voices being heard. Shame thrives in silence. In silence, there is a lack of connection. We may support someone without words, but that is different from silence, invoking isolation. And then the judgement of ourselves or perceiving judgement from others, real or imagined. It doesn't matter. Shame wins all the same.


Brown goes on to say that shame cannot survive in the light of empathy. Empathy, connection, warmth, and space allow shame to diminish and love from others and ourselves to break through.


What are some interventions for shame? The following comes from Anthony Felix (2019).


  1. Be aware and identify the shame. Gain awareness of the cause, whether internal with thoughts or external with circumstances.

  2. Ask: what messages are being replayed repeatedly? How do they affect my well-being and my relationships with others? How does the shame influence me with how I feel? Can something be done at this moment?

  3. Reduce the drive for perfectionism and the "shoulds" that plague the mind.

  4. How to do this with number 3? Journaling about the "asks" from number 2 above. Increasing mindfulness to help elevate self-awareness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This will help to notice and modify self-defeating thoughts. Ask questions to help cultivate a growth mindset. An example is "How can I change my attitude toward the situation?"

  5. Practice self-compassion.

  6. Practice non-judgement with daily decisions and actions.

  7. Daily affirmations.

  8. Keep a gratitude journal.

  9. Practice strategies for decreasing rumination. Instead of asking why, ask what you can do about the current situation that's in your control.

  10. Develop shame resilience where you begin to question the shame, increase empathy for yourself, speak about the shame with others in your life, and adopt a growth mindset.

  11. Practice acceptance. For what you feel. For what you experienced. For what you did or did not do. Remember, though, that acceptance does not denote self-punishment.

  12. Own your emotions, yet don't let them overwhelm you and have you go down in a spiral.

  13. Invite guilt, shame, and other uncomfortable emotions for brief intervals. This coincides with number 12.

  14. Remember that we cannot change the past.

  15. Focus on what can be done for you and others in your life.

  16. Realize there are positive aspects of guilt and shame that aren't seen at first glance. One with shame is that the feeling increases our self-awareness of our situation and what we need to look at more deeply.

Shame does not have to pull us down with devastating losses. We can accept that we feel shame, grief, and sadness for a loss. We can work on processing what we feel. We can seek out support. We can create rituals for the loss. We can find ways to correspond with the deceased. There are options. Shame will corrode the very part of ourselves that believes in the possibility of change. Let us invite empathy, support from others, introspection, a safe space, and increased awareness to grieve for what or who has been lost without shame pervading our hearts.


References


Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.


Felix, A. (2019). Shame and guilt: Overcoming shame and guilt: Step by step guide on how to overcome shame and guilt for good. Fanton Publishers.











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