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An Exercise in Shame

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

The following is a journal entry I wrote on shame at the behest of my grief counselor. Shame is a very ugly corner of child loss. After writing this, I have read it many times over. Giving my shame a voice has shown me how unreasonable, insidious, and deeply buried in the subconscious shame can be. From that invisible place, it wreaks all kinds of havoc. I thought I had my shame under control. But this exercise has shown me that my shame controls me. I don't know yet how to dismantle the well of shame I carry. I don't know if I can. It has attached itself to Evelyn's death with knotted roots. See, it says, here is the proof. Here is what I have been trying to tell you all along. Shame is the prosecutor in my head, as well as the judge and jury. Evelyn's death is the admissible evidence.

I read this and think, Evelyn would hate that I am doing this to myself with her loss. And then I feel more shame. Even in death, I am letting her down. What a sick spiral it all is.

I post this entry for two reasons. One, is that shame lives and grows and operates in the dark. The more you see it, the more powerless it becomes. And the other is that shame by its very nature is an isolating emotion. It gets you alone and drips poison in your ear. By posting this, I counter that isolation. Not just for myself, but for everyone else who feels the personal betrayal that is shame as a result of their child's death.

I feel shame because my child is dead.

Other mothers do not have dead children. Other mothers, who may even parent in ways I think destructive to their child’s overall well-being, do not have dead children. I am not like other mothers.

The rationalist inside me tries to look at it objectively, and still she cannot deny that something went terribly wrong. Something that needed to happen to save Evelyn’s life did not happen. Something was missed. Something was hidden. Something was unknown. Am I to blame for my ignorance? Blame is another matter entirely. I was ignorant. What did it mean if not that my child paid for that ignorance with her life? Would other mothers have been more or less ignorant than I? The rationalist cannot answer that. The cold persistent facts are these: My child had a fatal flaw in her heart. I did not know my child had a fatal flaw in her heart. My child’s heart failed her. I failed her. If there were any intervention to be done to save her, it wasn’t. If there were anyone to carry out or insist upon that intervention, certainly it would have been me. Her mother. Her advocate. I didn’t. My reasons for doing or not doing anything do not alter the facts. My reasons fail me.

The rationalist does not believe in right or wrong. But the rest of the world does. Isn’t my ignorance—all the signs I didn’t see, all the things I didn’t do, all the steps I didn’t take—imperatively wrong? An empirical failure? It is if the qualifier for right and wrong, success and failure, is my child’s aliveness. Could there be any greater qualifier for those terms as a mother? Aren’t living, breathing children fundamentally requisite to the purpose of motherhood?

Sometimes, to quell the shame, I tell myself I am simply unlucky. I am a moving target, like everyone else. I was struck. Ev was struck. That’s our only difference. If we are daily dodging bullets, should we really be so surprised when one finally hits? Every day I get in my car, I dodge the fatal car crash bullet. From the day I was born until now, I have probably dodged a billion fatal car crash bullets. What about the appendicitis that certainly would have taken my life were I born to another century? I’m sure I’ve dodged at least a couple deadly infection bullets thus far. But all the bullets I managed to dodge over forty-one years of life cease to matter in the face of this one, perfect shot. I would trade them all if I could in order to give this one back.

I was hit by the dead child bullet. And I cannot hide the wound. Some people were struck by different bullets they could not parry. Maybe the sexual assault bullet or the abusive parent bullet or the breast cancer bullet. They can tuck their gunshot wounds carefully beneath their hem lines. But my shame is public. I cannot hide Evelyn’s existence under my skirt. The world knows she was alive and isn’t anymore. The world knows I am defective as a mother, or at the very least, ineffective as a protector. I wear my shame everywhere I go.

You could argue I haven’t been hit by anymore bullets than anyone else. But the one that sunk deep might be the shittiest one of all. And really my daughter took the bullet for me, didn’t she? I was struck by the shrapnel that ensued. What is that if not shameful to someone who fancies themselves designed for the role of war hero? Isn’t that motherhood? Are we not all purple hearts waiting to happen in the name of our children? Are we not ready to die for our cause? I have been robbed of my grand destiny—to die first, to die for. Maybe I haven’t been struck by anymore bullets than anyone else, but the one I took hurts the worst, looks the worst, feels the worst.

The rationalist thinks my bullet theory is garbage. She argues that I can’t know if all the barrels are pointing at all of us all the time. Maybe there’s a child sniper and a cancer sniper and a cold sore sniper. Maybe I drew the short straw before I ever even came here.

Perhaps that’s all destiny is. Perhaps life is not a firing squad shooting in every direction all the time, hitting us at random. Perhaps it is a careful aim taken … one, two, three. Gotcha. AIDS. Miscarriage. Wrongful imprisonment. Either way—whether we are taking the bullets with our name on them or taking the bullets we cannot manage to escape—the playing field is level. Your bullet finds you, as mine found me. And yet how we send righteous glances across the bloodied grass and think, Better him. Better her. We pat ourselves over one shoulder believing the difference lay within us all along, blind to the barrel staring us down and the crosshairs holding us squarely in place.

The mother bear in me does not understand. She would have ripped open the sky and made the sun bleed fire to save her cub. She would have wanted to, anyway. But I am not a bear. I am not a mythic being with supernatural powers, even if my love for my children feels epic. And I cannot get around the wall of ignorance within me that I have been dismantling brick by brick since finding her body—the wall that stood between me and all the things required to keep her alive, yet conveniently allowed the dead child bullet to pass through. Finding out I am not a mother bear after all—that is my shame.

I am aware that I arrived at Evelyn’s death with a well of shame already in place. Her loss is the mother lode hitting that well, overflowing it. I am aware that I carry the countless disappointments and failings of my childhood within me. The many times I could not be and do whatever it was my mother thought I should be being and doing. I understand as a mother myself how my mother truly meant the criticism and nitpicking—as a way to ensure my survival. But the little girl in me still feels it as a failure of my being.

Draining the well by focusing on these early deposits of shame feels ridiculous now. Like pausing to pop a pimple when your leg has just been blown off. The water is black and septic, the bottom leagues beneath the surface. I’m tired and my lung capacity is not what it used to be. Diving is not recommended. Draining … well, where does one begin? I’m not sure there is a hose large enough to siphon off the pus created by Evelyn’s death.

The rationalist in me agrees.

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