Is there a hierarchy of grief? If you lose a child, is it worse than losing a spouse or sibling? Who hurts most?

I'm interested in the impulse people have to devalue their own grief in deference to mine. It just happened again. An old friend who recently lost her mother, (who was in her 80s), reached out to say she was thinking of me and the loss of my brother. She said what so many people say: "I was thinking of you and how awful it's been for you and your family. Losing my mom was hard but it's different for you."

Is it? Is there some empirically higher emotional cost attached to the loss a beloved younger brother that is not attached to losing a beloved older mother? Am I in more pain than she is in?

I mean, can you really calculate the losses in this way? My sister-in-law lost the love of her life and the greatest father her son will ever have. She walks through Hell daily in a way I don't have to. Ilost my best friend, a brother, a father-figure, a mentor, my life's witness, my moral compass, my connection to and memory of childhood; I wanted to grow old with him, too. I guess we do defer to each other's grief in certain ways. I think she's got it worse and she thinks somehow that because I had him longer that maybe I win/lose? It's illogical logic we all seem attached to. Why?

There's a kindness to this line of reasoning; an unconscious tip of the hat or stepping aside allowing an unwitting newcomer to this gruesome club to enter first. It's poignant to me, this ritual of somehow diminishing one's pain to honor another's. I wrote her back to say how grateful I was for her thoughts, and that I felt so sad for her, too, that it sucked just as much to be her. Her grief is just as large, real, there, sad, undeserved, brutal.

Vanished: Grieving a father's life, not his death

Guilt, more than grief, follow a father's hard life, mysterious death

All of this reminds me of  a recent heartbreaking and inspiring story I received from an anonymous soul in response to some earlier writing I'd done exploring the rules of grief we create, about the odd categories of who gets to feel saddest and why, who counts and who doesn't. This reader offers a lovely and aching story of a father who was elusive and lost and nearly impossible to love. Nearly. Impossible.

And it's also the story of an adult child of an addict who found a way make peace with the life and death of a father who was there, and then wasn't, there, and then wasn't. This person wonders so beautifully what could have been, what should have been, and how one is supposed to feel.

Here is their story:

"Thank you all for sharing your thoughts... It gives me some sort of weird company in my bewilderment of "grief". The bewilderment of my "grief" is that.... Well, I don't really feel grief at all. Weird, but honest. I feel guilt, more than anything for not feeling grief. I feel selfish, for thinking of things in life that make me happy.... Big or small...From the Peace and Protection of God... to simply receiving something in the mail that I ordered. I have this lump of guilt in my throat after feelings of happiness. I do feel sad, now and again, when I think of things I wish I would've said to my dad, and how I wish I would've invited him down to see me and where I live...

Can't laugh with him

When I think of how I can't ever laugh about childhood memories with him again... Or when I wish I would have tried harder to help him in life. My parents divorced when I was about 12. My dad had lost a long battle to drugs and violence... After my parents divorced, he had no one to support him. So, he just roamed around... Hopping from place to place, picking up odd-end jobs here and there, doing just enough to get by. He had no "home", no loved one to come home to, a lot of bitterness, and essentially nothing in his life that mattered to him, except for all of us kids.

Anger and guilt at an addict and a dad

I can remember being so angry with my dad for the pain and suffering that he had put my mom through. I resented him so much... Until one day. One day, I had this conviction. I had this guilt wash over me, when I thought, "If my dad died, would I even cry? Would I go to the funeral, hold a straight face, an upright posture, and bold-face not even cry? Or worse... Would I not even go to the funeral?" I remembered having those awful thoughts just a few years after the divorce, and I felt guilty about it. So, I picked up the phone on his birthday, and I called him to wish him a happy birthday. It. Made. His. Day. Maybe it made a lot of days for him? It did for him what meth could never do.... It fulfilled his heart. Just one conversation. Just words of love and comfort. It did unspeakable things for him, and he was so thankful. He drove 1,500 miles to see me. He had no job. No car. No money. But you know what? He found a way. And we made one of the most memorable memories of my life. Okay, now my eyes are watering. No tears yet... But it's progress, right? : )

And yet there was joy

We enjoyed a weekend under the sun. He taught me how to surf. We took pictures. We sat on the sand. We enjoyed some good ol' fashioned, father-daughter time, and I was at peace. At peace with all of the water under the bridge. At peace with the pain that he inflicted. At peace with God for showing me His face through such pain and confusion. At peace. Fast forward years later into my adult life. My siblings and I are all grown... Some with full-blown families, some not. I, being the only one, moved off to pursue my dreams in my career, being passionate and stubborn, just like him...

I visited often, always keeping in touch with my dad and scheduling time to visit with him, when time and events allowed. He showed so much love. He was so proud of me. (watery eyes again) He loved my boyfriend. My boyfriend had so much respect for him. My dad was so generous with him. He loved him too. He always made sure that we were taking care of each other. Everything was peaceful... or so it seemed. Mom had moved on. She was seeing someone, for the first time, about 12 years after the divorce. Dad came around for the holidays... or every time he was invited. He kept in close contact with our oldest brother, with whom he did a lot of running around. All was well. We were at peace. No fighting, no violence, no drugs or heavy drinking that we were aware of. He even looked healthy. He looked tan, full enough to not be underweight, and thin enough to not be overweight. He looked great. He seemed great. He would even send frequent, loving or funny text messages. He had a great sense of humor... One of the best I know. Actually, he was kind of hilarious. He was a good man.

Until he vanished

Until one day, he just disappeared. Vanished. No one had heard from him in months. Then, the news flashed findings of human bones in a wooded area near a family member's house. Thanksgiving rolled around... No dad. Then, Christmas... Still no dad. We all got to talking about it, and come to find out, we had all received an affectionate message from him on the same day... and that was the last that was heard of him. While nothing is official, nothing has been announced, we all know.

Living with the truth of his death

We know the truth, and it is a very bewildered feeling that I have. My siblings are grieving, I suppose, in the proper, for lack of better words... Or maybe in a more normal way. Crying. Reminiscing. Checking on each other, including me, often. Being very supportive. Planning ways to bring closer to it all. Then, there is me. I am always the "one-off", so to speak. I'm just here... Thinking of my dad and grieving loved ones, often, but not really sure how to respond, but trusting God. I am trusting that he is loving me, and protecting me and letting me experience the situation from a different perspective. Spoiling me rotten, the way that He always does. He is my ultimate Father. He is raising me into an adult. He is guiding me in very cool ways in life... Through incredible circumstances, and even better... Through the most remarkable people. So, while I'm feeling kind of like a weirdo, for not grieving in a very typical way. I also feel.... Well, like myself. Very atypical. Very.... Just how God intended. Very loved. Very protected. Very confused. Even kind of awkward about it, at times. But God is good... And so was my dad."

Here's what I'd like to tell this person, this son or daughter who has lost so much but gained something, too. Here's what I'd like to say to all of us in all of our brokenness, in all of our categories and stages of grief and loss and ruin:

Whatever you feel, embrace yourself and your openness to seeking out that last bit of love. What a generous, life-affirming path you chose. Of course you're ambivalent and confused. But ambivalence, confusion and bewilderment are far healthier emotions to live with than rage or denial or searing pain and relentless guilt. How proud he must have been. How proud you should be.

What a gift you gave him. And yourself. Now you can live. May you both rest in peace.

May we all rest in peace.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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