Shame

In response to a blog I wrote the other day, Validating Grief, a reader left the following comment:

Last night at my grief group, three people apologized for being tearful or crying as they spoke! They seemed ashamed…actually saying “I should be composed”! How can we expect society to validate our grief, our shadow world, when we don’t! I think that is the reason your voice has been so important to me…you validate yourself which gives permission and example for others in the same to position to do so. Then and maybe only then will the “others” come along.

This comment really made me think. Although I have talked around the issue during the past ten years, I have never actually used the word “ashamed,” and yet it’s true. Our current society, which so shamelessly promotes mores that many people find appalling, still manages to find one group to shame: those who are mourning.

I was never ashamed of my grief, though I did at times feel as if I weren’t handling it well because of all the tears. I cried around others at the beginning because I could not talk about Jeff’s death without sobbing; my grief came from somewhere so deep inside that I had no conscious control over my tears. Later I did my grieving in private. Only I (and my blog readers) knew what I was going through. And even then, as I continued writing about grief, I sometimes felt apologetic as if I were trying to garner sympathy rather than simply telling my truth.

In our present culture, tears are a sign of weakness. Through thousands of movies and books, we are taught to be stoic, to hold back our tears, to be cool. Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven was the epitome of western cool, gliding across the film’s landscape without a single show of emotion. Think how different our experience of grief would be if men such as these had wept.

Even more than that, the complex and painful experience of grief for a spouse, life mate, soul mate is not something we see on television shows, in movies, or read about in novels. Fictional folks shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

In real life, this doesn’t happen, and so we are ashamed of our weakness.

For men, this is an especially fraught situation. Where women’s outward shows of grief are often greeted with sympathy, men’s grief is treated with disdain. From a young age, boys are taught that only girls cry, that to be a man, you must be stoic. And so, for men, an additional layer of complication is unnecessarily added to an already complicated situation.

Another reader commented on that same blog post about validating grief:

Agreed that the embarrassment and shame about expressions of grief is important and significant enough for its own essay. I’d add that for us guys, it’s got a different dimension or layer to work through.

Anger is just about the only acceptable form of male grief, and so all those chaotic feelings that so many of us, male and female, feel after the loss of a mate — anxiety, frustration, loneliness, confusion, despair, helplessness, panic, resentment, bitterness, isolation, numbness, emptiness, futility, yearning, envy of those who are still coupled — have no place to go in a man except to be buried in anger and embarrassment and shame.

Current theories about grief that are supposed to replace the outdated five stages of grief model, are just as damaging to the griever, because proponents of these theories say that getting past the loss and returning to our normal selves is a matter of resiliency. Normal selves? There is no more normal! Resiliency? People who are grieving are utterly resilient; how else would we survive?

Because of all this conditioning, if our grief doesn’t fit into any of the established ideas about dealing with loss, we are ashamed. If everyone else can get by without tears, why can’t we? If everyone else can get over their loss, why are we still in such pain?

Despite what people might believe, weeping and wailing are appropriate ways of relieving the incredible stress, pain, and angst of losing a longtime mate for both men and women. Such releases are necessary because otherwise the pain stays inside to cause emotional and physical damage, gets relieved by pharmaceuticals, or leads to inappropriate behavior such as illicit drugs or dangerous anger.

Grief is not just a matter of emotions. It is, in many cases, a physiological response to stress, and especially to the loss of our survival unit. Humans are pack animals, and our very survival depends on our pack, and when we lose the other half of our survival unit, it sets off a cacophony of alarms in our bodies that create havoc with our systems. And yet, somehow, instead of being taught to accept physical changes as a normal part of grief, we are taught to be ashamed of these body processes, as if we were defecating in public. (But oh, wait, I just remembered — in many cities, relieving oneself in public is now accepted without shame and is no longer a punishable offense, but cry in public? Oh, no! That is shameful.)

As time goes on, we are supposed to “get over” our grief, and miraculously, the pain does diminish, but there is no way to get over the loss — every single day, we wake up to a world without our loved one. One year, five years, ten years — what are years to a broken heart? For people who are still married, every day of those ten years, they woke up to their spouses. They take comfort in being married, and yet we are supposed to . . . what? Take comfort in our lonely beds? One year, five years, ten years — doesn’t matter. They are still gone.

We did nothing wrong but try to do the best we could in an untenable situation. So why are we supposed to be ashamed?

The truth is, there is nothing to be ashamed of while grieving. It takes courage and strength to grieve and aren’t those traits the epitome of manliness (and womanliness)?

It’s those “others,” the people who urge us to “get back to normal,” who should be ashamed — of their ignorance, if nothing else.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.