What Divides Us

Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.  Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

During the eight years that Jimmy had brain cancer, I spent much of my non-family time immersed in the world of pediatric cancer, researching clinical trials and treatment options. The families we met at the hospital and those I met online had children who were fighting cancer or had died from it. Although our stories and circumstances were different, our goal was the same — to fight like hell, in our own ways, using what tools, wisdom and experience we had, to save our children’s lives. Cancer was the common enemy. Because childhood cancer isn’t a “lifestyle cancer”, there was no blame or suggestion that it was the parents’ or the child’s fault.

After Jimmy died, and especially after I began creating Salt Water, my world expanded to include people who were grieving beloveds of all ages and relations. Loved ones who had died in many different ways, some by their own hands or choices, others whose deaths were an accident, still others whose deaths couldn’t be explained. And I discovered just how divided and cut off from each other we can be.

It’s what some people call the “grief Olympics”, also known as “my loss is worse than yours”. And people have rankings. Dead children trump parents, grandparents and pets. Sibling loss is worse than spousal loss. People loss is worse than pet loss. Fresh grief is worse than a death that happened years ago. I’ve even seen people compare circumstances as though we can assign points or calculate the amount of grief based on the way the person died.

The problem with all of this, beyond the obvious damage it does to people whose lives have already been shattered, is that it drives us apart at a time when our greatest source of comfort is other people who have also suffered a devastating loss. Instead of reaching out to each other, we’re calibrating whether the other person’s pain is more or less than our own and making judgments about how much pain they’re entitled to.

I have friends who will be devastated when their older, beloved dogs pass away. Friends who are still recovering from the deaths of the grandmothers who raised them when their mothers vaporized. A best friend can be closer than a sibling. One of my cousins is the sister I never had. Location on the family tree and labels matter a lot less than the way we feel about the person who died.

The other way we diminish each other’s grief is by using shame, blame and guilt as weapons. One of Jimmy’s and my most favorite people lost her daughter to a heroin overdose. As we kept each other upright during those hard, dark days after our children died, I realized that in addition to her grief, she was also having to deal with people’s judgments about how her daughter died. Some people don’t lean in the same way when they think the parent could have or should have done something to prevent the death or when they think the parent did something wrong. Yet Jimmy’s fierce desire to live doesn’t make his loss more meaningful than the death of a child with mental illness who couldn’t stand the pain any more.

Before the unimaginable happened, I am sure I did it, too. It’s just so easy when nothing horrible has happened to you. You think you’re “living right”, doing something others aren’t that’s keeping your family safe and healthy. What I didn’t understand until the rug got pulled out from under me is that we are all one phone call away from having our lives turned upside down.

What I’ve learned on this side is that the comparing doesn’t make anything better or make Jimmy any less dead. What does help is connecting with someone else who’s grieving — sharing our grief, talking about our beloveds, exchanging stories, saying their names. Talking about the empty chair at the table, the phone call that doesn’t come, the birthday that will never happen, the milestone events that are lost forever. As I started to listen, without analyzing or judging, I discovered that I was able to focus on the awe I felt at the burden the other person was carrying instead of standing in judgment at the way he or she carried it.

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