As someone who has survived suicide loss, I realized early on that it was important for me to own my story and tell it as it is. To my advantage, I also simultaneously realized that I would have to contend with shame, a highly disempowering emotion. But I was ready for the challenge and plunged headlong into it. The desire to be authentic — to be my real self and not what others expected me to be — outweighed my desire for false safety and being deceptively anchored in my comfort zone.
Brene Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection writes, “If we want to live and love with our whole heart, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear, and vulnerability.”
Shame is a universal emotion, and all of us have experienced or will experience it. But, in the context of suicide loss shame comes with unexplored dimensions and implications. When Carl Jung famously described shame as a “soul-eating emotion,” he was referring to its disempowering nature. It causes the person experiencing it to minimize, downsize and completely negate the reality of their experience. They might do this by covering up or disowning their stories.
It makes them feel small, flawed and unworthy. Jungian analysts describe shame as the “swampland of the soul.” Brown develops this metaphor further and writes, “We need to learn how to wade through it. We need to see that standing on the shore and catastrophizing about what could happen if we talked honestly about our fears is actually more painful than grabbing the hand of a trusted companion and crossing the swamp. And most important, we need to learn why constantly trying to maintain our footing on the shifting shore as we gaze across the other side of the swamp — where our worthiness waits for us — is much harder work than trudging across.”
Experiencing shame and guilt as a survivor
Suicide loss has profound implications for those who have survived it. It is the only form of bereavement where we are compelled to hide, deny or ‘invent’ socially acceptable reasons for the death of our loved ones. Why are we afraid of telling it as it is? It is because we fear that people will reject, judge and blame us. We don’t want to be perceived as someone who is unworthy of love and belonging. Worse, we are scared that this event will define our reality and our future. In addition to shame, survivors of suicide loss often wrestle with another shaming emotion, guilt. Shame is about who we are. A person experiencing it thinks, “I am bad.” Guilt is a twin emotion of shame and is about behavior. It causes a person to think, “I have done something wrong.”
Shame festers and grows like mold in the presence of secrecy, silence and judgment. Immediately after the tragedy, I too was overwhelmed by feelings of shame. It is as if we have internalized the societal values and attitudes that stigmatize suicide and feel compelled to tell a story that fits the dominant narrative. In my case, I responded by acknowledging my shame, understanding and honoring it. Choosing to tell my truth was a fearless act of courage that neutralized the shame – it cannot fester under the light of awareness.
But it wasn’t until a few days ago that I happened to stumble across the term ‘shame resilience’. Learning of it validated my stance. Brene Brown developed shame resilience theory. It defines shame, its consequences and how people respond to it. It causes people to feel “Trapped, isolated and useless.”
Brown says, “Shame resilience is the ability to recognize shame, move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience. The first thing we need to understand about shame resilience is that the less we talk shame, the more we have it.”
This has enormous implications in terms of enabling those of us who have survived suicide loss, to reconstruct our lives.
First, we need to recognize and acknowledge our personal vulnerability that led to the feelings of shame.
Second, we need to recognize the external factors that led to us feeling this way. In the context of suicide loss, it involves recognizing the stigma, shame, secrecy and silence around suicide that causes loss survivors to internalize these feelings and attitudes. And to indulge in self-blame for having failed to anticipate or prevent the manner of death.
Third, we need to connect with others to receive and offer empathy by telling our stories and making ourselves ‘heard’. Speaking about shame neutralizes its power to harm and sabotage us. It is also effective protection against self-blame and self-abuse.
Fourth, we need to discuss and deconstruct the feelings of shame, both individually and collectively. Doing so lets people know how we would like them to support us. Often, people don’t reach out, because they don’t know how to. We not only need to tell our stories truthfully but also create spaces for supportive conversations. Doing so will enable other survivors of suicide loss to speak up and for others to hold space for them without blame or judgment.
We need a sangha; a community of supportive people who share a sacred space; a theatre where we express and experience our shame mindfully, dance it away, sing, and talk about it. In doing so, we release the shame, embrace self-worth and a sense of belonging with courage, compassion, and connection. We let ourselves bounce forward.
Dr Nandini Murali is a communications, gender, and diversity professional. In April 2017, she established SPEAK, an initiative of the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai, to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health; and Bounce Forward, an initiative to help people heal and transform through loss.
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