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The Shame I Felt (and Hid) Before and After My Brother's Death

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Heart disease is sometimes very subtle. It might start out with mild shortness of breath and fatigue that goes mostly unnoticed. I see a cardiologist once a year because of a medication I am on that can cause cardiomyopathy, or a hardening of the heart, making it difficult for the heart to pump oxygenated blood to the body. I don’t have heart disease, but I fit into a category of people at risk for it. Shame is a little like heart disease. Insidious.

My first warning sign that shame was beginning to control my life was in the subtle ways my conversations with my brother changed. We stopped talking about me and started talking about clinical ideas associated with the degree in counseling I was moving toward. He had questions, and I was happy to answer anything that did not focus on me. We talked frequently, but I was hiding something so shameful that he could not know the gravity of the weight I felt. I was certain even my brother could not forgive my behavior and choices, so I hid my inner self from the person I was closest to. Shame was winning in my life. It does that when we keep secrets.

Slowly I stopped talking with my brother altogether, and that is when my life turned upside down. My brother-in-law passed away, and I found myself grieving not because of his death but because of the loss I knew my sister felt. I was crushed. When I went back to Michigan for the funeral I discovered that my brother was abusing opioids and was making life choices that did not align with his morals and values. I was devastated. I felt like I had lost my brother-in-law and brother in one visit to Michigan. In the following months, I faced additional loss including my health, job, mental health, and livelihood. I frequently wondered what would have happened if I had stayed in close contact with my brother. Maybe he would not have made the choices he made, and maybe I would have believed I could talk to him about my life again and not fallen so far down a rabbit hole.

My brother and I had a sort of reconciliation over Christmas of 2017. He looked at me with sincerity and told me to stop worrying about what other people thought. It was as if he had read my mind and was waiting for me to share my life with him once again, but I smiled and choked back the pain I felt and lump in my throat.

He called me one day in June to talk, and I still felt shame and hurt that is hidden deep inside, so I didn’t answer. I let it go to voicemail. Two weeks later my brother’s heart stopped, he fell and hit his head, and he was braindead. On June 29, 2018, the plug was pulled. I will never talk to my brother again. I live with regrets, a lot of them. When shame wins, we lose.

Why didn’t I remember the empathy he demonstrated when I lived with him? Why did I allow myself to feel so guilty and alone? I let shame control my relationship with my brother. I stopped talking with him for a while because of the shame. I am angry at myself for thinking he would not have empathy. I am angry I thought he would be disappointed in me or judge me. I am angry with myself for not maintaining that relationship. I am angry that I don’t have him anymore.

I am on a journey, trusting the process, to gain back my soul and life from shame. I am telling my story. Shame has devastated my life, and I am winning it back one moment at a time.

Follow this journey here.

Getty image by EvgeniyShkolenko.

Originally published: June 28, 2019
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