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Shamed Grief
Episode 1812th December 2023 • Beyond the Smile • Marylayo
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Grief with Shame

In today's episode of MaryLayo Talks, I’m with guest, Professor Dale Larson, an award winning author and clinical psychologist, about the feeling of shame some can have when grieving and how they can overcome the challenges based on evidence-based findings.  

Discussion includes:

  • What comes under the bracket of ‘shameful grief’?
  • How cultural and societal norms impact the perception of shame when grieving?
  • How can someone face and unburden their secrets?
  • What are the healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with secrets?
  • What tips and advice would you give to someone who is suffering from grief in silence?
  • Bible scriptures to support spiritual wellbeing.

Take a moment. Delve into what may be 'beyond the smile' and listen in to the conversation.

Guest details:

Professor Dale Larson is an award winning author and clinical psychologist. He is the J. Thomas and Kathleen L. McCarthy Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University, a Fellow in three Divisions of the American Psychological Association (Counseling, Health, and Humanistic Psychology) and Member of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement.

 

Guest's website

Related resources: Check out Episode 7: Losing Keven

Marylayo's spiritual wellbeing tips: Romans 8:1 & 1 John 1:9.

Connect with MaryLayo:

LinkedIn

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For help in dealing with mental health related matters, please seek specialist advice and support if needed.

Transcripts

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MaryLayo: Welcome to Marylaya Talks, a podcast

that discusses mental health and spiritual

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well being.

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Before we jump in, there may be episodes that

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are particularly sensitive for some listeners,

and if that applies, then I hope you'll be

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able to join me whenever you feel ready and

able.

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MaryLayo: Today's episode is on grief, but the

focus is about going through a significant

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loss and not being able to openly grieve

because of the feeling of shame.

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So to help me explore this, I'm with guest

Professor Dale Larson.

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Professor Larson is professor of counseling

psychology at Santa Clara University in

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Silicon Valley.

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He's also an award winning author, a national

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expert on grief, burnout, and resilience.

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We started talking about why someone may feel

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shame or even guilt when going through a

bereavement, and what the difference is

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between the two.

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Let's join in the conversation.

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MaryLayo: Typically what comes under that

bracket of shameful grief?

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Because there's probably different types of

loss.

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What comes under that bracket?

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Professor Larson: Well, actually quite a bit,

and it's important to understand why that's

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the case.

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But before that, let me share a few examples

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of this.

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We feel shame with regard to grief most often

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when our grief is disenfranchised, when

society doesn't really recognize this as a

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valid grief, if you will, pet loss,

nontraditional relationships and partnerships,

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situations where we say, oh, you don't really

deserve to grieve in some way.

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It's not a big thing.

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Yet it is very often a big thing.

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Stigmatized losses are also very often

resulting in shameful grief.

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Remember, grief is itself not shameful.

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It just is sometimes accompanied by shame in

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the person who's experiencing that grief and

loss because of some of the things that I'm

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talking about when it's stigmatized.

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If you have a loss through suicide, say your

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child has died through suicide, homicide,

moral injury in wartime, these are things that

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are very often stigmatized.

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And the grieving person feels, no one's going

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to really accept my grief.

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So it becomes hidden and shame results.

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There can also be shame in everyday kind of

grief, or not having loved enough, or not

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being there when someone has died at their

bedside.

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You can have grief at being abandoned.

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You can have grief in which you feel shame

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about your shame.

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I'm feeling shamed, and now I feel shame about

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the shame.

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It's so difficult to touch shame without

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increasing shame in others and in ourselves.

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So those are some of the real examples that

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stand out for me, where grief can become

shameful.

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MaryLayo: I mean, we've mentioned shame quite

a few times in this conversation already.

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So in the first place, what is shame?

And how come people can experience shame in

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the first place?

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Professor Larson: Yeah, great questions.

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Because shame is so often hidden that we don't

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even recognize it.

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It's something we can't really touch.

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Basically, shame is a self conscious emotion.

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It could be contrasted with guilt.

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Shame is an experience of I'm bad and guilt is

an experience of I did something bad.

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MaryLayo: Right.

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Professor Larson: So they're quite different.

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They're both self conscious emotions.

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But shame is different, and shame is what

keeps things hidden.

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So now to understand, though, why we have

shame, we really have to go back, I think, as

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individuals, to our infancy and also for us as

a species, back to the ancestral plains we

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walked a long time ago.

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Because it's human nature that when we have

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distress, we seek support.

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We want to disclose it, or we need to disclose

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this pain.

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Think of the infant who's experiencing

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distress, starts making sounds.

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Parents have all heard these I want attention.

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And when the attention isn't there, we know

from developmental psychology and clinical

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work it results in problems for the child.

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The child feels abandoned, but the child feels

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shame.

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And if you think about it this way, shame

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results when there's an impediment to

interest.

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Now, what does that mean?

That means that we are seeking interest from

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others.

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In fact, it's the heart of attachment theory.

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We want two things.

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We want our loved one or intimate other, or

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parental figure to show interest in us, to

appreciate us, to value us, to look at us, to

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be with us.

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When we don't have that, shame can result.

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And we also want our loved one, our caregiver,

intimate others to be there for us when we

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need support.

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So the grieving person, the grief person, the

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person who's experienced trauma, grief and

loss, is hurting.

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And it's natural to want to express that, to

communicate that, to seek the support of

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others.

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But when we have a stigmatized condition or

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situation, when we have disenfranchisement of

our loss, it blocks that experience.

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So we have an impediment to interest and

support, which results in shame.

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Shame is so often just hidden and we see the

anger that results.

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So many people who have anger issues are

really dealing with shame issues, but they're

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never recognized as such.

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So that's kind of it in a nutshell.

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It's really also, we'll talk a little bit

later, maybe, about the upside of shame.

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MaryLayo: I was thinking that there may be

factors, it could be cultural or societal

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norms that can impact whether someone

perceives their grief to be shameful in how

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they handle it.

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So, for example, the thought that came to my

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mind was how in some society they see it as a

dog is man's best friend.

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And then in other cultures, it could be that

the dog is simply there as a guard dog for the

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house.

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So when the person loses the dog in one

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society, that's their best friend, and in

another they just replace it because the dog

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was there for a role.

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And that's just an example to give the

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context.

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So can there be factors, for example, cultural

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or just what seemed to be normal in society

that can impact whether someone perceives

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their grief to be shameful and then therefore,

how they handle it?

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And if so, what have you noticed?

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Professor Larson: Yeah, good question.

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Because there really are cultural differences,

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societal issues involved here.

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Very profound.

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Know, like you're saying in different

cultures, people relate to grief differently

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in many.

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In some countries, the bereaved widow will be

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wearing black for a year, and it's culturally

accepted.

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In the United States and Silicon Valley, you

get three days off work, and then you

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shouldn't be talking about it anymore because

we're moving on and we have to recover

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quickly, and we're not going to allow people

to have a year in which we recognize their

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grief, but really profoundly in the United

States, for example, and I'm sure this is true

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in London and around the world where people

have been reading.

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Elizabeth Kuba Ross I was at the University of

Chicago with Elizabeth when I was an

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undergraduate working my way through the

University of Chicago in medical records.

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And I would walk by her seminars.

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And Elizabeth contributed so much to our

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field.

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But the five stage theory is not something

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that we should adhere to in our thinking,

although we're cognitive misers, and it makes

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kind of intuitive sense, but it's not good in

terms of understanding how people grieve.

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People do not grieve in stages.

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That's really stage theory has been shown over

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and over again to not hold up empirically and

clinically as well.

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We don't go through denial, anger, bargain,

depression, except it's more of a zigzag

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process through loss and restoration and

moving through our grief experience that way,

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personal pathways through grief.

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But the problem is, when society expects us to

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move along, well, are you in the acceptance

stage or now are you in the anger stage?

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Where are you at?

It's prescriptive, and it really says, you

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should be in this experience right now, and

that's not how it is.

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So then the brave person feels, I'm not doing

it right, I should be moving along or I should

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be in a different stage.

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And we really need to meet people where

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they're at, and we need to accept that in

ourselves, grief has its own timetable and to

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discover that as part of the grieving process.

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Grieving is a natural healing process.

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The loss is the wound.

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Grief is the healing.

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MaryLayo: I mean, thanks for even highlighting

about those stages that seem to be widely

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accepted.

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And just bringing out the point that actually

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it's personalized approach that's important.

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That's my learning for today.

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So when grief is shameful, how can you grieve?

When others don't even recognize your loss or

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are even aware of your loss?

So how can you grieve?

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Professor Larson: Well, it's also important in

our terminology to say it's not shameful grief

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per se, it's shame grief.

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I don't find the right words for this, really,

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but it's when people become shamed, or feel

shame when they're bereaved.

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But yet we're already talking about the

situations where shameful grief or shamed

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grief, or grief with shame is more likely to

occur.

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So how can you grieve back to our ancestral

plane?

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We need to find a way to communicate about our

grief with a confidant, someone who can

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understand this, whether it's in a support

group or a friend who's had a similar

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experience, or a counselor.

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If you're really struggling with your grief

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and you feel like, I really need to talk about

this at a level that I can't with others, and

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maybe we'll talk about some of the reasons

others can't really understand it, one of the

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reasons is the shame experience, because we

don't know how to talk about shame in everyday

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life.

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How many times have you ever said to a friend,

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are you feeling shame about this?

We would never say that because you're shaming

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shame if they are feeling shame.

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And often shame is not even recognized, but we

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need to, I think at the heart of it is to

communicate.

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We need that connection.

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We seek connection.

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But fear rejection is at the heart of this.

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And when we anticipate or experience

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rejection, as in stigmatized losses, I can't

talk about my pet loss.

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Nobody thinks it's that serious an experience,

but I've had clients who have been in pretty

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deep, complicated grief over the loss of a

pet.

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It's most significant being in their

existence, in their lives at this moment.

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So it's very important to realize,

communicating, and then you have this holding

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environment, as we say in psychotherapy, where

we can talk about these places inside where we

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feel most alone.

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People so often feel what I experience or talk

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about as the fallacy of uniqueness, the belief

that I alone am having this experience.

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That's why a support group can be so helpful.

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Other people who are having the same

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experience.

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You have instant empathy, and you recognize

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that, oh, wait a minute, it's not me.

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It's really the experience I'm in.

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Other people feel this way, too, which we will

never know unless we are talking to others

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who've had similar experiences.

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MaryLayo: So the important thing really is

about communicating and finding the right

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group or person that the person can share

with.

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Professor Larson: A trusted confidant who you

feel I can really share all of myself with.

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And this is so important in life in general.

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The key to happiness is close relationships

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that are very healthy.

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And it's certainly the key to coping with

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grief and loss and trauma.

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MaryLayo: And I think this is kind of, like,

linked to that question.

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But how can someone face and unburden

themselves from their grief?

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So you've shared a bit about unburdening,

maybe by sharing with that trusted, confident.

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But how can the person even face up to that

secret and unburden themselves from it?

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Professor Larson: Well, what we know from

research is that suppressing difficult

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experiences is not helpful.

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There was a series of great studies by Dan

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Wagner at Harvard called the white bear

studies, and they would ask people to not

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think about a white bear.

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And person would try not to think about the

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white bear, but then the white bear would

appear in their mind immediately.

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When we suppress things, there's what we call

an ironic rebound effect.

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In other words, you try to repress it and then

it comes up again.

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And then it comes up again.

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So repression, or suppression, formally we

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call it suppression, doesn't work.

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It just causes more problems.

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So we have to experience our experience,

confront it, and then things can begin to open

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up and through journaling, through

communicating to an empathic other, to find a

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way to kind of reappraise this situation.

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This experience is much better in terms of

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promoting positive outcomes and not getting

stuck in grief.

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The challenge is to get grief working.

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Grief is a natural healing process, but it can

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be stuck.

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So we need to find ways to get grief working

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for us.

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And that's the real challenge.

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And it is scary to confront these experiences,

to confront loss, part of the human

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experience, and not an easy one to look at, to

experience, to find your way through.

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MaryLayo: So, Dale, you mentioned earlier

about the upside of shameful grief, the fact

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that secrets are often not disclosed because

they are associated with distress and

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negativity.

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So how can secrets help us to heal?

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Professor Larson: Well, when we explore them,

when we have that awareness.

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Oh, this is what I'm keeping secret.

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There are some secrets that we possess, other

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secrets that possess us, and the ones that

possess us are the real problem.

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And if we're ruminating in addition to

suppression, we know that ruminating about,

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especially grief and about other troubling

inner experiences is not good for us,

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correlates with depression, correlates with

more complicated grief.

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So we need to find a way to explore those

inner experiences and to understand them.

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MaryLayo: And are there any other, let's just

say, healthy versus unhealthy ways to deal

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with secrets?

Are there any others that's worth

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highlighting?

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Professor Larson: Well, what we know from the

research already is journaling works and makes

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a real difference with regard to traumatic

experiences.

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Jamie Pennebaker's work is profound.

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And we know from our work in therapy that

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having clients write about their experiences

and writing a letter to the bereaved or doing

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chair work where we might have the shamed,

bereaved person or the person experiencing

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shame, talking to their loved one, who they

feel they didn't do enough for them.

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And then often taking the chair of the other,

the person they've lost, who they feel shame

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with, relationship to, and have that voice

given some airtime.

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And that can be very profound, because so

often I found when you take the other chair

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and say, your father, you feel like you didn't

do enough.

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You feel a lot of shame.

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You weren't there for him.

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He says, oh, come on, now.

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You know I loved you.

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I'll never stop loving you.

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I would never, ever judge you for that.

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I know you love me.

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That kind of thing, that can be really life

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changing.

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So therapy is.

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That's a more intense experience.

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But we can kind of do that in our own minds

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sometimes.

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So I think it's getting perspective.

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It's an invitation.

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Shame is an invitation to getting more

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interest.

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Actually, it's really saying, help me.

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Like guilt is saying to us, I need to change

something to improve this relationship.

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We don't want to get rid of guilt.

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And shame has an upside, too, because if we

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listen to it, we can say, oh, so I'm really

frustrated that I'm not getting the love I

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need.

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I can get stuck in that.

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Or I can say, what can I do to open myself to

more love?

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What can I do to ask for more of what I need?

What can I do to not feel shame over not

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getting my needs met?

See, that's what most people don't get, is

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that we have shame when we are frustrated in

our movement towards something we desire.

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It's say with your career, you're moving along

and you have something that's not going well,

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you start to feel shame, I'm not good.

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There's something wrong with me.

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I must not be good enough.

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Instead of seeing it as, oh, I need to do more

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here.

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And often converting shame to guilt is not a

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bad idea.

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Then you're just changing your behavior.

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You're not saying I'm bad.

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You're saying I need to do some things a

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little bit differently to accomplish my goals.

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MaryLayo: There may be someone who's listening

to this that's actually suffering with grief

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in silence.

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And is there anything, Daryl, that anything

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else that you would like to share?

Maybe we haven't covered it, or you'd really

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want to highlight it because it's so key that

you'd want to share with them directly.

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Professor Larson: Well, I think, yeah, the key

thing is to know that you're not alone.

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To see is common humanity.

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I know that sounds like it's easy to say and

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kind of cavalier in a way, oh, everybody has

this.

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It's not that at all.

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It's not to trivialize your loss in any way.

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It's profound.

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It's life changing.

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But to accept yourself, to accept your

experience, to realize this is a natural

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response to loss.

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It's built into us.

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Grief is a natural process, nature's way of

healing the broken heart.

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And it is something we have to listen to in

ourselves.

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And then when we do that, we realize, I'm kind

of zigzagging my way through this, from loss

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to restoration, back and forth.

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We appreciate the process.

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And when we see something that, oh, yeah,

that's a new goal I have, or a new perception

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of things, a new appraisal or something else

that I can move forward with, follow that up.

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Listen to yourself.

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Listen for the signs of growth.

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Listen for the things that could heal you and

take advantage of them.

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Self care.

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Build your relationships with others.

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Find a confidant.

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And it's sometimes so hard with a really

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tragic loss.

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And there are so many of them that are so

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difficult to navigate the loss of a child that

could go on and on, traumatic kinds of losses

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which really require a lot of attention, a lot

of acceptance on our part, and I think a lot

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of communication to others who are accepting

of that experience.

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So trust your experience and find a way to

share it with someone who is going to be able

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to listen, is going to be able to be there

with you in the place where you feel most

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alone.

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I think that's the key to healing in these

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difficult moments.

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MaryLayo: Thank you, Daryl.

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That sounds like wise and sound advice.

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Thank you once again, Dale, for joining me on

MaryLayo talks.

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Professor Larson: Thank you.

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MaryLayo: Here's a spiritual wellness tip.

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Meditate on Romans chapter eight, verse one

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and one.

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John chapter one, verse nine.

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And they read, so now there is no condemnation

for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

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If we confess our sins, he is faithful and

just to to forgive us our sins and to cleanse

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us from all unrighteousness.

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MaryLayo: Thank you for listening.

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Do follow and join me again next time on Mary.

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Layo talks beyond the smile.

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