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What a shame… (The shame of grief in hospice)

What a shame-the difference between shame and guilt in grief

by Leanne Billiau

“Have patience with all the world, but first of all with yourself.”

-Francis DeSales

Shame is not a topic we often speak about in any context, but it is there none the less. We have all felt shame, but it remains somewhat taboo in our North American culture. Like death and grief, it is a common human experience that rarely hits the light of day.  It is tucked away in the dark recesses and all too often we try to keep it there by any means necessary.

The words shame and guilt are sometimes used interchangeably, and while they can certainly co-exist, shame goes deeper than guilt.  Guilt is a feeling focused on behavior and shame is a feeling focused on the self.  For instance, guilt is a feeling of regret for doing or saying something that you feel may have hurt your deceased loved one: “I can’t believe I said that to him.”  Shame is a feeling that you are somehow fundamentally damaged as a person: “I can’t believe I’m the kind of person that would do that.” Fossum and Mason say in their book, Facing Shame, that “while guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.”  Shame can happen when we don’t meet the world’s—or our own—expectations of ourselves.

Most grievers feel guilt about something they did or didn’t do, or something they said or didn’t say to their loved one that died.  For most, guilt is part of the grief experience and can most often be worked through either on one’s own, in a bereavement group, or with a bereavement/counseling professional.  Shame goes deeper than that.  Shame is the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with you as a person, that you are deeply inadequate in some way and unworthy of love and connection.

Shame related to grief has the potential of being a sticking point if you do not pay attention to it and give it voice.  “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable,” says Brene Brown, noted shame researcher from the University of Houston and author of Daring Greatly. Brown goes on to say that shame, at its core, is the fear of disconnection and that the antidote of shame is empathy.

So try to be gentle with yourself while you are grieving.  Your life is forever changed and it is not easy to adjust to a new life without your loved one.  Treat yourself with kindness, non-judgment and empathy.  If you are not able to be empathetic toward yourself, try finding a bereavement counselor, therapist, or even a support group with whom you feel safe giving voice to your shame.                                                                                                                                                                             

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