The Hierarchy of Grief: Who IS the Biggest Loser?
Are some losses literally worse than others?
Posted June 4, 2010
Why do people keep devaluing 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 as we approach the grim ‘year anniversary' of my brother's death. 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's in?
(Check out the books 'Good Grief" and "The Other Side of Sadness" for a larger exploration.)
I mean, who really is The Biggest Loser? 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. I lost my best friend, a brother, a father, 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.
Looking back at the hundreds of e-mails, cards, letters, notes I have received about the loss of my brother, I noticed how often people referred to their own loss, and then immediately said something about how it's not the same or it's certainly not like what happened to you ...
I don't know why it took me nearly a year (can that really be true?) to notice this, but now that I see it I want to call it out. I want to say to everybody that your grief and its attendant empathy are the connective tissue that keep me going. Don't dismiss it or pat it away or minimize it because your beloved lived a good life or lived a longer life or because you had time ‘to prepare' or if you're simply further down the Grief Road than I am and can see a little more clearly.
It reminds me of pointedly of having a miscarriage, especially an early one the medical industry so lovingly labels a "chemical pregnancy." Of course, if you keep miscarrying you become a "habitual aborter." But that's another post.(Read this terrific blogger on infertility/loss/parenting after infertility and this one, too.)
There's definitely a self-imposed hierarchy of grief in the land of early pregnancy loss. You feel you certainly should not be in the kind of pain like someone who suffered a stillbirth. Worst of all are the parents who held that baby in the NICU while she died in their arms. They are totally the Biggest Grief Losers, right?
So there you are, with your sad little loss. Would you even get a nametag in the Loss Club? Your pregnancy was only six weeks. Six weeks or two weeks or eight weeks or even just one afternoon between when the little blue stick said yes and then your body said no. Do you get any legitimate grief points if you only had an afternoon to glow and dream and weep for your future that has finally, finally come - and then it's gone. She's gone. He's gone. You can totally go to the movies if you're miscarrying a really early pregnancy. Go out for dinner and take in a show, the doctor says.
And yet you are full of death and your heart is as broken and so I invite you up here on the stage to claim your loss, too. To everybody who wrote to me, come on up. To everybody who lost a pet who was their only child; who lost a parent they thought they hated but they can't stop sobbing; whatever your loss, let it be what it is. We have all lost. One and all. Come on up here and make room for the gal next to you. All of us smushed up on this enormous stage are all the Biggest Losers. We have all earned our title.
And just look around. We are not alone.