Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Grief is Bigger Than Your Grief

This week I had a rather miserable experience with someone supposedly in the bereavement industry. I say supposedly because she seemed a bit of a fraud (ok, not a bit) and broke the cardinal rule of grieving: comparing one person's grief to someone else's.

Now I'm not going to say I'm innocent of this infraction. In the early days of my grief journey, I found myself doing this quite a bit. A great deal of that came from a place of confusion and heartache and, frankly, a deep desire to actually find someone I could relate to, who was going through exactly what I was going through.

Of course I never did find that person because, as I learned, you can't. No two grief journeys are the same. No two losses are the same. No two loved ones are the same. What we do have, are shared themes. The feelings of hopelessness, despair, anger. Asking ourselves over and over what happened and why. Wondering where that person is now. You get the idea. These are the things that bond us in our loss.

Now I'm not about to declare that all grief is the same either. I've lost grandparents, pets, friends, and a husband. Losing my husband was definitely the hardest for me. Emphasis on the for me. As I said, every person is different. Some people may experience what has been dubbed, "complicated grief". This often occurs when the death is violent, sudden/unexpected, or occurs at a very young age. It can be so shocking to the bereaved, they experience a traumatic type of grief, impacting every area of their life for prolonged periods.

After working with memebers of the widowed community for the last couple years, I have heard, time and time again, the debate rage over which is worse: a sudden death or one after a long illness. In fact, I heard a fellow widow say it just the other day - that their loss was much harder because they had to see their spouse suffer for so long. Not only is this statement offensive because it minimizes the grief of those who have had sudden losses, but it is factually incorrect. Numerous studies have been done to evaluate which type of loss is more difficult to overcome. When I say numerous, I mean dozens and dozens. The conclusion? Every single study declared their results inconclusive. With a long drawn out illness you must watch your spouse suffer in pain, losing their dignity, their health, their happiness. With a sudden loss, you may be utterly unprepared, never even getting to say goodbye. You see where I am going with this? They both suck. Period.

In getting back to my little incident this week, the "professional" told me that losing my husband didn't even compare to losing a child. That losing a child is ten times worse. She even said, "You can always go out and get another spouse." Silly me, I must have passed that aisle in the grocery store: Replacement Husbands. Complete with handy tool belt, socks to leave lying around, and on sale now!

I asked her if she'd ever lost either a husband or a child. No, she hadn't. When I asked her how she could possibly know which was worse, she told me that as a mother, she knew. Which, to me, would sort of be like saying that as a wife, I knew losing a husband was worse. It was ridiculous.

Her comments were so hostile and antagonistic (not to mention completely ignorant), it took pretty much everything in me not to upend her coffee table and scream, "HULK SMASH!" She proceeded to tear me a new one for a good 20 minutes while my blood pressure shot through the roof and I mentally slipped away to my happy place (lalalala la la la la la la laaaaa). I tried to calmly and rationally explain that while I had never lost a grown child, I had lost a baby, and they both sucked. That grief was grief and you can never possibly imagine the pain of losing a spouse, until you go through it yourself (something I recognize about losing a child and the primary reason I wouldn't argue that one is worse). It was all for naught, however. I ended up leaving, tears streaming down my face, storming back to my car (Sidenote: Sorry to the poor man I was walking behind who kept looking over his shoulder at me looking more and more terrified).

It was amazing that after all these years, someone's ignorance like that could still get to me. And so much! I was distraught the rest of the day and ranted about it to anyone who would listen for the rest of the week. The lack of empathy and total lack of professionalism where shocking.

So what makes people fly off the handle and enter into these silly competitions of comparing their grief? (Or in her case, comparing the grief of other people, not even her own)?

Partly I think it is a lack of awareness. Sometimes this is just a natural part of the early grieving process - we only see our pain because it is so big, it blocks out anything else (or anyone else). For some, I think it is a way of making themselves feel better. If my grief is worse than anyone else's, it explains why I haven't gotten out of bed in four days and my hair still smells like Cheetos. For others, perhaps like the woman I spoke to, they want to be the expert. They want to sound authoritative and more knowledgeable than anyone else. Or maybe they are just uncaring asshats. Who knows.

Because, you see, the My-Grief-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Grief Competition only has losers. No winners.

Because grief sucks.


All grief.

Whether you lost a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, it doesn't matter. There are so many factors that can impact grief: where you are at in your life, your relationship with who you lost, unresolved issues or feelings, watching them suffer, losing them suddenly, not getting to say goodbye, and so on and so forth. Every loss is so unique that "measuring" the grief is impossible.

Not to mention you can alienate and hurt the people around you, quite badly.

So if you ever find yourself accidentally letting slip a My-Grief-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Grief, I urge you to take a moment, consider the person in front of you, and put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine their pain, feel their grief.


You see?

It's awful too.


  1. This is so well-spoken, Emily. I don't think anyone could read this article and NOT pause to think. Thank you for putting this out for us to see.

  2. This should be required reading - perhaps as early as high school. You're a terrific writer. I found myself gasping and laughing aloud in the same paragraph!

    I'm very sorry for your loss.

  3. You know, Emily, I think the comparison thing is a by-product of our own competitive natures. I don't think it's right for people to compare something so unquantifiable as grief but I think people do it because they have that competitiveness about them that makes them want to "one up" whoever it is they are speaking with. It doesn't even matter what the subject is, there are people so driven by their competitive natures that they have to play one up with the others...even when the subject is death, dying and grief. It's just one of those human nature things you just have to shrug off because you can't go around changing everyone who is like that unfortunately.

    As the other commenters said, well said!

  4. Well said, take 3! I get so frustrated by people calling themselves grief "professionals" who 1) aren't 2) would say anything even on this spectrum. I am so sorry you went through this, but so glad you were able to recognize the problem with what she was saying and how it was making you feel. I worry for the many others out there who may encounter someone like this and not recognize this. I am so glad you took the time to articulate it so well here.

  5. I followed you here from Hello Grief. I loved you post, and I'm so sorry that you have cause to write so eloquently about grief. I have lost a child. I've also lost both of my parents, all of my grandparents including my grandmother who was my soul mother, and my first "real" boyfriend. My list of losses go on, but the point I'm making is that you are absolutely right. There is no hierarchy of loss; no way for us to quantify grief.

    Also, people say that "you can always get another" about babyloss too, and it's just as offensive and horrific. You don't want another spouse. You want YOUR spouse. And f*@ck anyone who doesn't understand that.

    I hope you are doing at least okay this month. This is the third year after the loss of my son, and this one seems the most difficult to me. So I relate, at least a little, your three years post.

    I'm so glad you're writing. I am so sorry for what you're having to write about.

  6. I just wanted to thank you for writing this post. This is exactly the sentiment I have been trying to define but just haven't been able to find the words. It has been 2.5 months since my husband passed away, and I still have a lot of anger towards one person in his family that I am struggling to come to terms with. Reading your words, I realize this is precisely what I have been needing to express to this person. Thanks.

  7. Such an important topic and probably not talked about enough. The grief comparison just adds to people's pain and I have to agree with one poster above who says it may just be part of our human nature (the not so good part) that has this insane desire to "one up" other people.

  8. Thank you, well said.

  9. No grief is bigger or worst. We may have a common link but they are not all equal. I had a therapist tell me that I was lucky that I did not have kids with my husband. That statement alone really disturbed me. So, I am to feel less sad about my grief?

  10. This one is very helpful to me. My husband just passed away 3 weeks from now and I'am currently 24 weeks pregnant with our first baby. I too experienced this with my mother-in-law, it really hurts hearing those words, comparing her grief to mine, I may not experiencing the grief of losing a son but I too is in agony of losing my husband.

  11. Thank you for the article and the good thoughts on this grief comparison subject. I am going through it right now with a friend of 30+ years. She lost her son and three months later I lost my husband. Both were unexpected losses. Every time we talk, which is less and less, she pulls her trump card - losing a child is harder than losing a spouse. My loss is nothing compared to hers. (her words not mine) I had to think about why my friend would be comparing our grief journeys and it hit me like a tone of bricks that she has always played the comparison game - her house is the bigger and better, her career has the greater earning power, she only buys from the priciest stores, and now her grief is the bigger and more life altering than anyone else's. What I realized after our last conversation is that this my grief-is-bigger-than-your-grief nonsense is never going to end - ever. What she doesn't realize is that her need to best others even in the arena of loss and grief is ending what I thought was a friendship, but, then, I realized that friends don't invalidate your feelings. It's best to know when to move on.