The Grief Olympics

That’s the thing you never expect about grieving, what a competition it is. Gayle Forman

For some, the rules are strict and fixed. For others, they’re fluid and complicated. Certain rules are more universally agreed upon. Others are open for debate and invoke heated arguments that too often result in hurt feelings, wounds that don’t heal and estrangements that may last a lifetime.

So why do we feel compelled to compete in the first place?

Loss is painful, lonely and isolating. Although it might make us feel better in the short run, comparing our loss with another’s ultimately only makes our pain worse. Even if our loss is worse based on some invisible cosmic scale, grief is not a competition, and no one is winning these battles.

The death of my 21-year-old son was far harder to accept and process than the death of my 102-year-old father. Dad lived a long, full life. He became a parent for the third time at the age of 60 and lived long enough to see me graduate from college, to walk me down the aisle and to know and love both of my children.

And yet … when Dad died eleven years before Jimmy did, I still wasn’t ready, despite his age. He was my fierce champion, a key business advisor, one of my most discerning editors, and he ran the best clipping service around. I couldn’t imagine life without him in my corner and only a phone call away. His death hurt.

Perhaps because my closest friends knew how deeply I loved him, they didn’t try to minimize my grief. We were in our early 40s. Most of us hadn’t yet suffered a devastating loss yet they could imagine how it would feel to lose their much younger fathers.

The grief was different when my mom died the year after Jimmy did. She was 92. Although she was still sharp as a tack, her body was battered and bruised by a pre-cancerous blood disorder that flared uncontrollably after Jimmy died. Perhaps because Jimmy died first and at such a young age … Perhaps because I was older .. Perhaps because I had just gotten lucky with Dad that no one said anything that diminished the loss or my pain .. Whatever the reason, this time around there were people who didn’t feel the same constraint that they did after Dad died. “Well, she lived a long, full life …” “Oh, she’d been in and out of the hospital for a year? What a blessing that she’s out of her misery now …” “My mom died in her 60s, 70s, 80s. At least your mom was in her 90s …”

I am the queen of looking on the bright side. I have told myself “Well, it could have been worse” more times than I can count. But not when it comes to death and loss. Mom may have been old, but she was still fully engaged in life. She didn’t want me to have to grieve Jimmy’s death without her. She wanted to watch Molly graduate from high school and play college softball. She wasn’t ready to go. And no amount of comparing or minimizing was going to lessen the way I longed for her.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with all this comparing. It doesn’t ease, change, fix or heal anything. When you’ve lost one of your most important people, “at least” and “my loss is worse than your loss” improves the situation, especially for the party whose lost the person or pet deemed less than.

What if we allowed other people to grieve without comparing or judging? Refrained from trying to dictate how meaningful another person’s loss is or whether ours is “worse”? Made space for other grieving souls to feel how they feel?

Losses are like fingerprints. Each one is unique and distinct from every other. We are all broken by the deaths of those we love most. Isolated and alone in our grief, there are so many ways to separate us further, just when we need connection and comfort the most.

Perhaps it would help if we remembered that we are already on the same team. We understand what it means to have our lives divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’, how it feels to be thrust into a club that no one wants to belong to. We share many of the same feelings of anger, hopelessness, rage and despair. We wonder how our beloveds could have died so young or so soon or right when we needed them most. We wonder where they are now and how we will go on without them. The size of our pain, the depth of our longing, the hole in our lives … these are the ties that bind. Just like those five rings, we are linked by loss. By staying close, we are stronger together. Holding each other upright, braced for the days to come.

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