It's the Shame

I love talking about my son David. He died in 2009 on the football practice field at the age of 10. He suffered a sudden traumatic brain injury and basically died in my arms. He was fully suited up, wearing the most advanced head protection available today, he had never had any head injury prior to the incidence, and he had been coached properly and was not doing anything that invited such a tragedy.

Did you see it? Right there in the last sentence of that first paragraph? If you missed it, go back and read it again. That sentence, with all it’s qualifications of what was not done wrong and how there was no one to blame or point fingers at is where the shame lies. It seems to be one of the hardest things to shake about the whole mess. I mean, how do you let go of the shame that the one job you have as a parent, keeping your child alive, you failed at?

I have come to terms with the fact that David’s accident was just that, a horrible accident. I logically know, and have accepted, the fact that there was no one to blame and nothing that was done that brought about his death. But even though I know this, and have forgiven myself for letting him ever play football in the first place, the shame lingers. If it didn’t I wouldn’t need to make those qualifications every time someone asks me what happened. Perhaps it is because in my own mind, if someone told me the same story I tell about how David died, I might make the same judgments I fear they will make about me; that I was foolish to let him play football, or that I didn’t care what happened to my boy, or that I pushed him into playing. All of these things are not true, but in my own mind I know I would probably make those same assumptions. So, as a defense, before others can form those accusations in their own minds, I try to pre-empt their judgments. I guess it’s sort of like how I make a fat joke about myself sometimes, before someone else does, so that they know I am aware I’m a little heavy and they won’t judge me for it.

I am also deeply aware that the shame I feel must pale in comparison to the shame others who have lost someone must feel. After all, I consider us “lucky” that in regards to David’s death we had no one else to blame. There was no crime, or neglect or suicide to have to try and reconcile. We just had to wrap our heads around a life without our boy; he was playing America’s most popular sport with other youth. For those who have lost a loved one in a manner that society judges as unacceptable, the feelings of guilt and shame, almost always undeserved, must be paralyzing. I tell people all the time that unless you have lost a child, you can’t understand what it does to you. I think sometimes people politely nod and agree with that statement when they secretly don’t actually agree. But every person who has lost a child understands. Well, I fully accept the fact that I know nothing of the heartache someone experiences when a loved one is murdered, whether by gun, drunk driver, or their own hand. As horrible as what we have been through is, the added levels of self-imposed guilt on those surviving tragedies like those is incomprehensible to me. Basically, I understand that I do not understand.

Nothing anyone else says can help. It presents another wrinkle to the grief process that complicates every other reaction and experience. Of course, one thing is true about all grief; it’s individual and solitary, and the road forward is different for us all. So what can we do for those who feel acute shame over someone else’s death? We can listen. We can be there. We can do everything in our power to show them that we do not judge the action of others to be their fault or blame to carry. No one can release the guilt and shame someone feels, except the person who feels it. But in order for the grief stricken to even begin to find a way through this undeserved self-punishment they need to know those around them do not blame them.

Like all people grieving a sudden loss, people certainly don’t want to be told that God had a plan, or that their loved ones are in a better place. Those thoughts may someday help some grievers find the road forward, but it’s not something they can be told. If that kind of perspective proves to be helpful for someone, it’s a point of view they must find on his or her own, through their own faith or understanding. So be gentle, be kind, and just be there. Offer to help with the daily chores, or with meals. Show them you don’t judge them. It can be a powerful tool to allow them to heal.

As for me, I continue to work on forgiving myself and letting the shame go. I have it logically figured out, but logic and matters of the heart are rarely in sync. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell the tragic tale of my son’s accident without the pre-apology and preemptive explanations. I certainly am trying to get there. And for those of you struggling with your own unique self-imposed shame, I extend my attempt at understanding, if not for the depth of your personal shame, for the fact that it is a normal byproduct of loss and that I have experienced it as well. We all want to understand, but there are times life defies explanation.

Peace and strength to you. We all need it.

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About the Author
Bart Sumner's book, HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THOUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER is available in the Grief Toolbox Marketplace. He is the founder & President of HEALING IMPROV, a nonprofit charity in Grand Rapids, Michigan that provides no cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward. He lost his 10 y/o son David in 2009 to a sudden accident. He is an actor and writer who writes the blog MY STORIES FROM THE GRIEF JOURNEY at the website for
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