Failure, Shame, and Isolation: Dealing with Loss in an Impatient Environment

Today, we talk about loss, in all its complexity and weight, with NYC therapist David Horne. David helps us look at loss in a new, honest light, and learn more about how to cope.

About the author: David Horne is a psychotherapist working in private practice in New York City. He helps individuals, couples and groups work with issues around loss and adjustment, family and intimate relationships, identity and personal growth.  To learn more about David and his work, or to book a phone consultation and begin your work together, please visit dhpractice.com

Note: If you are working through the loss of a parent or partner and would like to engage in group healing, please email Alyssa at alyssa@mywellbeing.com to learn more about groups offered this fall.


Prior to opening my practice, I was an oncology social worker at a not for profit supporting people affected by cancer.

In that capacity, I had the opportunity to meet and work with people who had been diagnosed with cancer, as well as with their loved ones.  One of my responsibilities was to facilitate the adult bereavement group. Over the course of three years in that role, I was engaged with people dealing with loss.

That experience had a powerful impact on me.  I was deeply moved by people who were struggling with something that sometimes overwhelmed them.

Members of the group were able to find connection in their shared experience, and in doing so, to offer each other a unique and critical sense of support.

While cancer and bereavement are extreme examples of loss, the underlying themes and dynamics that shape those experiences are in play, although possibly to a lesser degree, even in less catastrophic scenarios.  Also consistent, despite the specifics of the loss, are means of self-support.

What follows are some of my own ideas/observations about how we tend to experience loss, the first of which has to do with context.

Despite the reality that loss is something that everyone experiences at various times, to various degrees, it feels like something that no one wants to talk about.

Familiarity with loss tends to be something to which we admit -- not something that we share openly. What is it about loss that makes it so threatening to our selves, our relationships, to our culture?

For many, loss is a contradiction between an awareness of loss and a simultaneous urge to deny or negate the new reality.  We end up saying things to ourselves and to others that don’t feel true. Things along the lines of being better off without whatever was lost, or the almost guarantee of a better opportunity materializing quickly, or a belief that the painful experience is better for us in the long run, or part of a god’s plan.

The contradiction between what we want to believe or be and what we actually feel can be destabilizing, like we’ve lost our grip or capacity to think clearly or to react in our own best interest.

For many of us, feeling exposed in a state of less than complete competence can be scary and embarrassing. Who can blame us for wanting to avoid all that mess and sadness and frustration?

We go about our daily lives in a society that is invested in a mythology of boot-straps-style, heroic-overcoming-against-all-odds in a blaze of glory narrative.  Books, movies, blogs, friends and relatives all tell us that we are supposed to look on the bright side of something that feels ugly. Focus on the positive, turn that frown upside down, believe something about a god closing a window but opening a door, be strong for someone else’s sake, make lemonade, etc.

Loss, however, is a sad and painful experience in which we are face-to-face with a degree of powerlessness over situations that we did not choose, and in some cases, a reality that we absolutely cannot accept.  This is hard to square in an environment with very limited time or tolerance for feelings or behavior that don’t follow that heroic model.

Our inability to resolve the loss, coupled with society’s tendency to jump over the grief and get right to what we should be feeling or doing instead, combine to create optimal conditions for feelings of failure, and shame in that failure, to emerge.

Because we are inherently social animals, a lack of available social interaction to help us process our emotional experience, and to provide a sense of support in that processing, can exacerbate negative feelings directed toward ourselves.  That is extra-isolating, in an already isolating experience.

This is where a support group can be helpful.

Instead of pretending everything is ok, which often involves stuffing our bad feelings and beliefs into a psychic compartment and spending a lot of emotional energy in an ongoing effort to keep them contained and out of conscious awareness, a group presents a safe and supportive environment in which to bring those feelings and beliefs out into the open.

Just being real, for 90 minutes a week, with other people who are engaged in a similar struggle, is usually a huge relief.

On a cognitive level, the supportive atmosphere and shared mission of facing and engaging with loss can facilitate an empowering exploration and organization of one’s lived experience.

What support is now missing? How has this experience impacted my sense of self, community, beliefs, expectations, or quality of life?

How did what was lost function in my life?  Was it a person that made me feel loved, safe, valuable?  Was it a career or a capacity that contributed to my sense of self-worth, competence or self-esteem? Did it have to do with trust?  The loss of one’s hair, breasts and/or erections can be very difficult to accept.  Loss can rob us of our sense of vitality or hopefulness.

Witnessing and being witnessed by other human beings, using those parts of our brains that are devoted to interpreting body language and facial expressions, acknowledging the compassion we feel toward another human and their emotional experience, often results in greater compassion toward ourselves.

The shared experience of effort in coping normalizes the inability to quickly move forward the way that we would like to, in the way that we believe that we should.

Coping with loss is a challenge.  Because of that, I encourage my fellow humans to consider presenting themselves, whether to a friend, a therapist, or to a group, in the full reality of their experience.

In the face of the deadening aloneness of loss, sharing oneself, and witnessing other humans’ experiences in all their complexity and familiarity, is a chance to do something/take action in a way that is honest to one’s own experience.

It can be an opportunity to feel connected, and in that connection, to feel very alive. One might even call it heroic.


Thank you, David, for sharing with us today and helping us understand a glimpse of the complexity of loss and the power of connection and community in healing.

To learn more about David and his work, or to book a phone consultation and begin your work together, please visit dhpractice.com

Note: If you are working through the loss of a parent or partner and would like to engage in group healing, please email Alyssa at alyssa@mywellbeing.com to learn more about groups offered this fall.

Thoughts, questions, or feedback? Reach our team any time at connect@mywellbeing.com. We’d love to hear from you.