Mel, whom I saw in therapy, at first couldn't recall any struggle with low self-esteem when he was growing up. "I was good-looking, athletic, and popular," he assured me. Only when I asked him about his dad's death, which happened when Mel was five, did he begin to recall a deep, pervasive experience of shame.
Shame can be very hard to identify, especially if we're ashamed about being ashamed. I mean, what sort of person feels ashmaed about loosing their mom or dad much too early? Shame makes us feel like we're "different" and disconnected from the flow of human connection.
"I was the only kid in the school whose dad was dead," Mel began. He told me about an incident in the first grade when the teacher asked the kids to draw a picture of everyone in the family. The teacher, ignorant of Mel's situation and apparently of life in general, asked Mel in front of the class why he had left his father out of the picture.
"You don't have a father, you don't have a father!" a classmate had chanted later during recess. As the others chimed in, Mel fervently wished that everyone in his class had dead dads.
Once Mel connected with the word "shame" and his experience of it, he described shame as his constant childhood companion. He had felt deeply different from other kids whose families were "normal."
During his youth in the 1960s, divorce was slowly losing its stigma, but the untimely death of a parent was still unspeakable. "I never knew when someone might ask me about my dad, or a teacher would have us make Father's Day cards, or our school or church would sponsor some father-son activity. I lived in fear of being found out."
Of course, Mel was far from alone in feeling shame about having a family that failed to replicate the mythical, picture-perfect family prescribed by the culture. I'm sure many of his classmates felt that their families were flawed for different reasons—some of them far more shameful than death. But back then, no one spoke about what went on in anybody else's house. Mel felt that he and his family were "passing," while other families were "regular."
Then, one bright day in June, Mel nearly bounced into my office, a page from Newsweek in hand. He had brought a short piece by Adriana Gardella called "Living in the Shadow of a Lost Father," and Mel asked me to read it then and there, because he felt it described his own experience precisely.
Gardella went straight to the heart of the tremendous shame and loneliness she felt in a pre-Oprah world where even the word "cancer" was embarrassing to say out loud.
With unapologetic candor, Gardella wrote about the humiliation and shame she felt when her father died from Hodgkin's disease at age 36, which bought her an "exclusive membership in The Dead Dads Club." I noticed that Mel had underlined much of the article, including these words:
"And with something close to envy, I read about how kids whose parents died on September 11 gather at bereavement camps and learn they are not alone. They make memory boxes filled with mementos of their parents, and counselors guide them through "holidays and grief work-sheets." Fortunately, they're likely to be better prepared for Father's Day than I was."
Mel had found himself a long-distance role model who boldly exposed her shame to the light of day, right there in front of God and millions of readers. "She's my support group," Mel told me. "She says what I feel, exactly."
Nothing can take the edge off fresh grief or magically heal the ongoing emotional aftermath of childhood loss. But realizing we are not alone can sometimes melt shame as quickly as Dorothy liquefied the Wicked Witch of the West with her bucket of water.
Mel folded the article by Adriana Gardella neatly and put it into his wallet, where perhaps he keeps it to this day.