Comparing Grief: A Useless Endeavor

I was struck by something WYG guest blogger, Nick Frye, said in his article Self-care in Grief: The Myth of Keeping Busy.  Somewhat unrelated to his main topic was the opening line to another important discussion.  He said…

“Isn’t it…true that every relationship is unique and therefore we all have our own unique experience with grief? After all, even a well-meaning friend who has had a parallel loss does not know how you feel. What we all do share is the experience of a broken heart because we lost someone/thing we love.”

When Nick spoke about his wife’s head injury I recognized his grief, but only because I had a similar experience.  Several years ago my brother was in a terrible car accident and ended up in a coma.  For 2 weeks we stood on the edge of a cliff trying to pull him back into consciousness; finally, his strength won and, little by little, he re-entered the world.  We, his friends and much of his family, celebrated and then returned to our normal lives.

But recovering from a life altering brain injury is no quick or easy thing and while the rest of us carried on as though nothing had changed, my brother, his wife and his children were left to walk hundreds and hundreds of miles – sometimes lost, sometimes angry, always carrying more weight than any one person should bear – towards a life they no longer even recognized.  I can never know the depths of their loss, but I realized it was real and it needed to be grieved.

Even before WYG, I spent a lot of time on grief websites and I’ve often noticed comments from people who identify with the feelings of grief but don’t feel their particular loss is important enough to say they are ‘grieving’.  There is the feeling that different types of losses – an early pregnancy, a beloved pet, an elderly grandparent – cannot or should not elicit the same grief response as someone who has lost a spouse or a parent, for example, and therefore the classification of ‘grief’ does not belong to them.

But I ask you if it’s not grief then what is it?

There are probably a few people out there saying to their computer screen, but it’s not the same, and you’re right…no one’s grief is the same.  As Nick pointed out, blanket comparisons can’t be made for even parallel losses. Regardless of the type of loss, no one can know the extent of another’s pain and sorrow.  Although grief is grief, how you experience it is as unique as you and me.

Comparing Loss copy

There is no equation for summing up the grief felt after any particular type of death.  We cannot say that father minus child = x amount of pain, or husband minus wife = x amount of sadness.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Sometimes we want it to; either because we know someone who is grieving and we want them to believe ‘we understand’ or because we are lonely in our grief and we want to be able to relate to others with similar losses.  Unfortunately, the complexity of relationships makes this impossible.

Gestalt theorist Kurt Koffka said,

“The whole is other than the sum of its parts”

… today we more often hear people say…

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”

Although not necessarily its original implication, it’s a theory that holds true when talking about relationships.

The equation You + Me = Us is cute but it does not compute.  ‘Us’ is composed of much more than the sum of two individuals in a relationship; it’s a system, not a linear equation.  Take a marriage for example; there’s a husband, a wife, and everything that exists in between. Emotions felt towards one another, how they relate to one another, unresolved issues, how their lives intertwine, their children, how they help define each other, how they help support one another, dependency, history, perceived future, needs, intimacy, routine, sex, love…the list goes on.

When one spouse dies you can’t simply subtract them out of the equation, the whole system is thrown off.  Bills, children, household chores, companionship, affection – all these things were previously striving towards equilibrium in the system.  Remove one person and everything must be renegotiated and redefined. You can’t possibly know what it means for someone’s spouse to die, it will impact their lives in ways not even they would have expected.

Our experience with the aftermath of a death, the ‘grief’, is a culmination of who and what we lost and our individual ability to cope with this.  Our tolerance for pain differs and we all feel varying shades of hurt.  Loneliness, absence, regret, need, longing, guilt, stress, lack of support – how much of this do you live with and how much can you tolerate?

Even within a family, the same loss will affect individuals differently.  It would be useless to compare my grief to my sisters; her worldview is different, her support system is different, and her feelings towards death and dying are not the same.  I live with a lot of regrets, does she?  She has nightmares about my mother, do I?  Although I can probably identify and relate to aspects of her pain, I can never fully understand it.

Grief is the loss of something we love and at its core, it is complex, complicated, and sneaky.  Its depth, its trajectory, and its timing are often unpredictable and surprising. We are limited in our ability to truly understand another’s grief because most of us have yet to fully understand our own. What we do have in common, is the experience of a broken heart and the wisdom to feel compassion for others facing similar pain.

Don’t forget to subscribe to ‘What’s Your Grief’ to receive updates straight to your inbox.  It’s the only real way to stay up to date on the discussion.

July 13, 2017

14 responses on "Comparing Grief: A Useless Endeavor"

  1. I have been thinking about this since you posted this last month. I think the loss of a child (which has happened to me) is different from other losses. It grates on me when people tell me about their grandparents dying or even their parents. Not the same at all. I have lost all of my grandparents and my father. Nothing has shaken my beliefs about just about everything like suddenly losing my young adult son has done.

    I have not lost a spouse, but I am sure THAT loss is devastating. And sibling loss, also. I have watched my youngest child struggle greatly after losing his beloved big brother.

  2. Thank you for this. I have never been comfortable with the idea of thinking that one loss is greater than another. I have come to the conclusion that the amount of space the lost one takes up in your life and your heart determines the intensinity of grief we feel. I lost my spouse 3 years ago, and the pain is there every minute, and rarely lessens. I have a friend who never married or had children, the loss of her parent was devastating to her, and continues to be so. Another friend lost her spouse of over 30 years to divorce, over 12 years ago, and she too, feels the pain of that loss to this day, in a most painful way. To me, trying to compare grief is a hurtful action, and I love that you have put this in words in such an understandable way.

  3. With some people its like a sick game of oneupsmanship. You’rs isnt so bad, mine is way worse. So someone confides in you about grief or guilt theyre feeling. You trust them on some level to be sharing those things and the only thing they decide to do is tell you how much worse theirs is to yours? Whats wrong with saying , “i cant even imagine how bad that would be” and just listen. Its not a competition for gods sakes

  4. I have recently lost my youngest child. I have talked to many mothers before and after that have had multiple losses of brothers, sisters, spouses, parents, etc, including my own grandmother, who lost all before she died. Not one has ever said anything other than the fact that losing a child is the worst, most devastating loss they ever faced. I don’t see how anything could ever compare. Anyone that says differently has never lost a child.

    • Vicki,

      It is not that we don’t recognize how devastatingly painful the death of a child can be, it’s just that we believe there is little use in comparing grief. We can never really know what another person is experiencing and no one could ever know the depths of another’s pain. In the end, what good does comparing grief do to help either person heal? Very little as far as we can tell, and yet it happens all the time.

      If you see a benefit in comparison that we don’t, we genuinely would love to know more about your perspective. But from our perspective when we start to make judgements or view our own pain in relation to our assumptions about others, we run the risk of making people feel further isolated and misunderstood. I’m sorry about the death of your youngest child. I’m sure not a minute goes by that they aren’t dearly missed.

      Sincerely,
      Eleanor

      • Only those that have lost a child can understand that pain. Nothing prepares you for that.

        • That is your experience. You just gutted me by stating the death of my husband isn’t as awful as the death of your child. I don’t have a child, so I guess you `win’ in who has it worse. Happy? Thanks for making the death of my husband utterly irrelevant in terms of my grief. You have it worse, you’d gladly trade places because what I’m experiencing is a cake-walk, in comparison. I’m so tired of people saying there’s nothing worse than the loss of a child. It’s a generalized statement that only serves to elevate one type of suffering while minimizing the pain carried by those whose loss doesn’t involve a child. Each experience is unique-and it could be said some parent/child relationships are not good or healthy or loving while a relationship between a 93 year old and a 89 year old is like one soul dwelling in two bodies-so when one dies the others grief is more devastating than that of a parent and child who wrren’t close. JUst stop making assumptions about who has it worse. Each experience is unique. Comfort the person with a simple”I’m so sorry .” Let them grieve and never ever suggest it could be worse. It inly adds to the pain.

        • Nothing prepares you for the loss of anyone! Especially of someone who passes away early in their life. And it doesn’t matter how much of your DNA the other person has. It doesn’t determine the pain you feel! You can only feel your own pain, your own grief and you can never ever compare your pain to anyone elses – since you’re not the other person and you simply do not know how they feel. That is very rude and insensitive thing to do.

  5. Sorry, but I have to disagree with you here. In fact, these types of questions are not outside of the realm of social science. For instance, you could set up an experiment in which you compare 1,000 50-year-old people who have lost a parent to 1,000 appropriately matched 50 year olds who have lost a child. You could administer tests that assess the amount of grief that people are experiencing. In this case, it is a total no-brainer that the loss of a child is going to result in more serious grief symptoms that the loss of a parent. In other words, losing a child at that age is worse that losing a parent. While there may be a few odd cases that do not follow this rule, it is a general truth nonetheless. Losing a child is also worse that losing a cat. Yes, there may be two cases out of 1,000 in which people don’t care much for their kids and like their cats better. But that is pretty unusual and does not prevent us from generalizing. To suggest otherwise is disrespectful toward those people who have experienced profound losses.

    • Tiffab, I think that you had misunderstood what we intended from this post. We completely agree that there are certain losses from which we can almost always see extremely intense feelings of grief. The crux of this article is understanding our concern that many people feel certain losses ‘cannot or should not elicit the same grief response as someone who has lost a spouse or a child and therefore the classification of ‘grief’ does not belong to them.’ The goal of this post was to help people understand that grief is about how you’re feeling, and no one can tell you that you are not grieving. On some of our other posts there have been many long debates in comments about comparing grief. I think many people are surprised when they see individuals who have lost a child do speak up, saying that it actually was not the ‘worst’ grief they experienced. In fact, One thing that has come up in comments here, on Facebook, and in my work in person with grievers, is people talking about the loss of a spouse that occurs after the loss of a child. Though many people who lose a child suffer in their marriage afterwards, the reality is that spouses do in some cases support each other tremendously in their grief. We have heard a surprising number of parents who have lost children say that when their spouse died later, they actually felt more intense grief because they no longer have anyone left to support them, and the person who would have always been such a tremendous support to them in their grief is now gone. We completely, 100% agree with the idea that we can study different types of loss and the impact they have and see trends. But we have to be responsible about how we apply that information. The point we are making in this article is that you can never know for sure what another individual is personally experiencing with their grief, and it is dangerous to assume, and at the end of the day it is not really anyone else’s place to assume. There is no question that we will all assume that the loss of a child is a devastating and profound loss. That is a given. What becomes dangerous is thinking that other losses, for specific individuals, can’t be profound. It is then disrespectful to their losses to minimize them, or make them feel as though they don’t have the right to grieve their losses in the same way as someone who has experienced a loss that is typically assumed to be ‘worse’. Having worked with hundreds of grievers over the years, I never stop being surprised at how many times those assumptions we make about who in the family will be most deeply impacted by a loss end up being completely wrong. I think the exceptions to the rule are actually very common, which is why it is so important that we treat each individual as just that, an individual. We talk to them about their unique grief experience. Sometimes our grief experience is connected to the other support system in our lives, our general resilience, how well we have been able to navigate past losses, the impact of other secondary losses that may accompany the loss, our coping skills, our relationship to the person who died, and a million other things. When we stop focusing just on comparing broad categories of losses, and think about all of those individual factors that impact people every day, I think we end up being more respectful to everyone in their grief. It doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge that some losses are generally absolutely and completely devastating, we just apply that information in a more responsible way and remember that they are not the only losses that can be completely and absolutely devastating.

  6. i lost my husband of 22 yrs. to stage 4 lung and brain cancer….he had been ill for many years before….
    after he passed my mom had the ‘guts’ or something to compare my hubby to my dad….
    my parents were married 16 yrs. and i heard all kinds of bad things from my mom growing up…about him….i was only about 5 when they got divorced…..all i know is on more than 1 time…she said “dean deserted you, just like your dad did me”…..
    to me….i had a screwed up childhood….lol….and as you can tell still a screwed up adulthood…..lol……i miss my teddybear!! ❤

    • Traci,

      Ohhh I’m so sorry about your husband. I know you must miss him so much. Ha…I’m not really sure what one can say about your mother’s comparison because clearly your husband did NOT desert you. As I’m sure you well know, sometimes you just have to brush it off. Ugh.

      Eleanor

  7. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)March 27, 2013 at 2:31 pmReply

    Eleanor, this is such an important topic ~ and one that comes up frequently in my own practice as a grief counselor. Thank you for writing about it here! I’ve added a link to your article beneath my own Grief Healing Blog post, “Is Pet Loss Comparable to Loss of a Loved One,” here: http://j.mp/GZocuf

    • Thank you Marty! We loved your post on pet loss and are honored to be referenced. Of course we agree that all losses are different although some have a far greater impact than others. Regardless of where grief emotions fall on the spectrum they are still important to acknowledge and process one way or another.

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