Shame, as defined by Merriam-Webster: 1 – a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong, 2 – the ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment 3 – dishonor or disgrace.
We all have experienced a feeling of shame. We shame ourselves and others “graciously” shame us too. Entire lives have been shaped and twisted by shame. Shame makes frequent appearances in mediation sessions and therapy sessions. An adulterous spouse will often intentionally over-compensate in a divorce settlement by literally giving away their property or money to the partner they have hurt. They are attempted to right a wrong- a gallant payoff-but not truly addressing the underlying issue.
Elder issues are often a minefield of shame. Adult siblings wrangle with each other for attention, recognition and pecking order. Those squabbles about who was the bathroom hog manifest into entire narratives of loss and disappointment as families age and resentments, often anchored in shame, fester.
Recently I worked with a sibling group struggling with elder care challenges. Their father had died a few years ago. Their mother was still living at home but could no longer drive. Their mother was beginning to require more daily care and more frequent medical appoints to manage her diabetes and related challenges. One son lived on the West coast, one son lived 40 minutes from their mother and the daughter lived 15 minutes from their mother.
The daughter worked full-time but had a home office setting and a flexible schedule. The local son had an 8-5 job and the west coast son traveled for business. The daughter had become the lead caregiver for their mother. She stopped over every day to check on the mother. She also scheduled the doctor appointments and drove to all the appointments, the grocery store, shopping trips, etc. The mother had recently been hospitalized and was released from the hospital on the requirement for 24 hour care for the following week. The daughter literally could not handle any more responsibility. After some nasty fights with her siblings and a recommendation from a good friend she convinced her brothers to try mediation.
We met together with the west coast brother on speaker phone. The session quickly devolved into hurtful statements and childhood rivalries. One sibling actually said Mom always loved you best. If that phrase does not trigger a smile from you search “The Smothers Brothers.”
The daughter stated she felt she was being taken advantage of by her brothers. The pattern had developed that she was the default caregiver. She felt unappreciated and angry. The local brother seemed stunned as he processed her statements. The west coast brother wanted to move their mother into senior housing and let the facility get her to and from appointments. The one common, but unstated, emotion was shame. Shame they had not been more helpful, shamed they resented helping their mother, even shame to move her and be done with the issue.
At the point we could begin to process solutions and suggestions the daughter stated she really just wanted to be thanked for everything she had been doing. She would do it regardless but she wanted to be recognized and thanked.
I suggested it might make sense to simply pay her for the time she spent individually caring for their mother. West coast brother balked and said “Just get a car service; I am tired of being jerked around. We searched “elderly ride services” and quickly discovered they are expensive. One service had a flat one way rate of $ 75.00, round trip $ 140.00. Suddenly he was more willing to explore other options.
In the end, the two brothers agreed to split an hourly rate of $ 25.00 to compensate the sister for her time. The sister might be paid $ 150.00 per month- three appointments a month, two hours each. The next month might be higher or lower. The sister would keep a log of her time and bill each brother at the end of the month. The sister would keep the brothers informed of unusual requirements, such as the 24 hour care for seven days after hospitalization challenge.
In the end the daughter felt she had been heard and honored and the brothers felt they too were contributing to their mother’s care, even if indirectly. They felt less shame too.
Mediation is an option to explore. Mediation is not about win/loss, right/wrong, accusation/defense but rather about what is the best settlement and resolution that leaves everyone as whole as possible, without shame or guilt.