July 9th, 2013, by Russell Friedman
We frequently cite the ancient proverb, “I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met the man who had no feet,” to introduce the dangerous issue of comparison as it relates to grief.
Using the proverb as a guide, if you have 10 people in a room, and you start with one whose mother died, but the next person has had both their mother and father die, and the next mother, father, and child, then you soon see that there could only be one griever in the room, the one with the longest list of losses. And you immediately realize how wrong that is and always will be.
While the proverb may be helpful to teach children to value the things they have, it fails when it is used to compare losses because it bypasses a basic emotional truth which is that:
All Grief Is Experienced at 100%, There Are No Exceptions!
The fact that all grief is experienced at 100% doesn’t mean that all grief is experienced at the same level of emotional intensity. But, in the event that someone meaningful to you dies, it means that the grief you feel will be based mainly on the following four factors:
• The absolute uniqueness of your one-of-a-kind relationship with the person who died.
• The combination of time*, intensity, and value the relationship had for you, which could include negative value as well as positive.
• The degree to which you felt emotionally complete with that person before they died. Many people who had bad relationships with someone who “should” have been a loved one are often left with a great deal of undelivered emotional communications.
• Even though you may have felt emotionally complete and had communicated nearly everything important before an important person in your life died, their absence can affect you profoundly. This includes the fact that they may have been the one person you shared your feelings with, and he or she is no longer here.
*There’s at least one relationship that may have had a very limited amount of time, but maximum emotional impact on you. That is your relationship with an infant child who died. A great deal of your relationship with the baby was based on the hopes, dreams, and expectations you had for them and your life together. This also applies to relationships with a child who didn’t make it full-term, with whom you may have had a powerful relationship, even though you hadn’t met them yet. That is part of the reason that miscarriages are so totally devastating to the parents-to-be.
Comparison of Grief Is Also Dangerous in Regard to Divorce and 40 Other Losses
Earlier in this article we focused on death in order to introduce the topic of comparison. But there are more than 40 other life events that produce feelings of grief, and near the top of that list of losses is divorce. Even though the bullet points we started this article with were relative to the death of someone important to you, they have the exact same effect when divorce is the topic, with only some minor changes in wording:
• The absolute uniqueness of your one-of-a-kind relationship with the person to whom you were married.
• The combination of time, intensity, and value the relationship had for you, which could include negative value as well as positive. [When there’s been a divorce, negative is usually the dominant value you feel at the end of the relationship.]
• The degree to which you felt emotionally complete—or incomplete—with your spouse before the formal end of the relationship, and often for many years prior to that. While the divorce ends the day-to-day bickering or the separate lives lived together, the divorce doesn’t end or complete the unfinished business.
• In the rare circumstances in which you may have felt emotionally complete and had communicated nearly everything important before the marriage ended, the absence of your former spouse can still affect you profoundly. This includes the fact that they may have been the one person you always shared your feelings with, and he or she is no longer the person with whom you can do that.
Regarding comparison: The primary points remain the same between your response to the death of someone important to you, and the death of the romantic relationship you had with your spouse. They are your uniqueness, the uniqueness of the other person, and the uniqueness of the combination of you and that person. Those three aspects are not the same and can never be the same for any other individual or any other pair of people.
Comparison Robs Dignity—Because You Never Know How Someone Else Feels
It is essential to understand that every relationship that has ever existed between people is unique. Because of that, when you compare one relationship to another, it automatically robs dignity from the person who’s made to feel as if their loss isn’t as big, for whatever reason. It also negates the basic truth that all grief is experienced at 100%.
No one can say their grief is bigger or smaller than yours, or that their relationship to the person who died was better [or worse] than yours. When you look at it that way, you can see how dangerous and wrong comparison is. Since all relationships are unique, so is each person’s grief.
If you look back at the bullet point lists above, you won’t see any comparisons. You won’t see any hierarchy or ranking of grief. In fact, if you read the opening paragraph carefully, you’ll notice that it says, “…in the event that someone meaningful to you dies…”That statement doesn’t indicate the nature of your relationship to the person who died, nor the level of emotional emotional connection you may have had with them. It could have been a parent, a child, a brother, a sister, a friend, or, in some cases it could have been someone you never actually met, a celebrity of some kind whom you admired or even disliked.
You will also notice that the words you and your are highlighted in bold italics many times in those four points. We did that to hammer home the fact that your grief is about you, and about your relationship to the person who died. It’s not about a comparison to even one other griever who may have experienced a parallel or similar loss. When we say parallel we simply mean, if your father died and my father died, we had a similar loss. Any commonality ends right there. For example, If you had a warm and fuzzy relationship with your father, and I had a stormy tempestuous one with mine, it points out that we don’t know how each other feels. And even if we both reported either warm and fuzzy or horrible and distant, it would still be unique for each of us and affect us individually and to differing degrees.
We are even careful not to say “death of a loved one” as that would rule out grief over the the death of someone important in your life with whom you had a horrible, painful relationship, which happens all too often in families, in marriages, and in other life areas. In addition, the phrase “loved one” is in itself a comparison as it compares to relationships that are less than loving.
There Is No Hierarchy and No Ranking of Grief
There is no hierarchy of grief that can accurately say that a particular loss is worse than all others, especially if you start with the premise that all grief is experienced at 100%, it relates only to how you process your feelings, and to the nature and meaning of your one-of-a-kind relationship with another person.
The moment a particular kind of grief, or one person’s individual grief is elevated to being the “worst,” it minimizes or negates everyone else’s. If yours is worse them mine, then am I not entitled to feel that 100% grief that opens this article? Is my grief less? Are my feelings unimportant?
No One Can Work on Your Grief Except You
No matter how much someone cares for you or about you, and no matter that they may have had a parallel experience and even a similar relationship as one you had, they can’t do your work for you. That’s another of the reasons that you must avoid comparisons, not only to the loss itself, but to the recovery actions that are also as unique and individual as you and the relationship you are grieving.