My Grief and Comparing, Ranking and Judging Grief
Over the 12 years I’ve been working as a mental health counsellor I have encountered countless numbers of people grieving for a loved one and other things they have lost. Some of these other things are, loss of a job, your pet dying, divorce, losing your home, the loss of not being able to conceive a child, miscarriage, unsuccessful IVF attempts, losing your freedom, an illness, disability, family estrangement, the list goes on. Grief is something we all connect on because we all experience it. However, we all experience it differently – there are common threads that run through the grieving process and we can all say yes that’s how I felt and I know how you feel. We don’t actually “know” how another person is feeling because we’re not in their body, but when someone explains their pain, we can identify with it, and it somehow, in that moment, adds a little bit of comfort to our pain as we’re not alone in it. Grief can be a lonely road, especially if you are one to isolate and internalise your feelings.
There are some platitudes that can sound hollow but are so very true:
“You have to feel it to heal it.”
“What you resist, persists.”
“You can’t go under it, over it, or around it, you have to go through it.”
If we suppress, numb and avoid the emotions, they’ll find a way out eventually. Think of this analogy – you’re playing with a beach ball in the swimming pool, pushing it down under the water, as soon as you let go, it’ll pop up somewhere else. It’s the same with our human emotions – if we push sadness down it will emerge somewhere as a different emotion, such as anger. E-motions are energy in motion, the body wants the emotions to move and process and travel, to complete their circuit, transition, to move through your body. Otherwise, they stagnate somewhere. The more you can express and talk about your feelings the less likely you are to act them out.
It’s so common for many people to busy their way through grief, act out the feelings often in an unhelpful or destructive way; all we’re doing here is delaying our grief and adding more problems on top of it.
Some examples are:
Consuming too much alcohol or food
Over-working / over-exercising
Shopping, consuming, acquiring things.
These behaviours are carried out as an avoidance tactic, instead of feeling the emotions and thinking about it. Grief is exhausting and there’s certainly, nothing wrong with binge watching a TV show to distract from your feelings, we do need a break from the pain, otherwise it can become overwhelming. Finding a balance, with healthy distractions is a way to endure and finally come to terms with the loss and grief.
A couple of reasons I decided to write this blog was because of a client, who sought counselling to deal with not being able to conceive a longed-for child to complete her family; and around this time an in-law had died prematurely. The situation had been going on for 2 years, including a miscarriage. And a close friend of mine who’s dad passed away in early 2021 and 5 weeks later her husband of 30 years suddenly died, with no warning whatsoever, he was 54 years old and he was my friend. Both people shall remain anonymous and they’ve given me their permission to use their experiences for this article.
I’ll start with my friend, who has supportive adult children, very close friends and family and is financially secure. The client is also financially secure, has a supportive partner, successfully running her own business, close friends and family and can afford private counselling and IVF; she has one child already.
We can put these losses on a spectrum of grief and our intellectual thinking brains can measure them against each other and we can come up with a ranking system and see whose grief comes out worse.
We could say about the client,” oh that’s really sad she can’t have a second child, but at least she has another child, some people can’t even have one child, let alone 2, AND she can afford private IVF.”
With my friend I think most people would say, “what a terrible thing to happen to her, so traumatic, she must be devastated, the poor woman, but at least it’s not one of her children, that would be so much worse AND she’s been left financially comfortable, can you imagine if she had to go to work too!” or “well at least her dad was 83, he was fortunate to get to that age.” The operative words here are BUT and AT LEAST– this only serves to devalue and invalidate the loss.
When my mum passed away 3 years ago, I remember being at work around that time before she passed, and very upset, a colleague said to me, “well at least you’ve had your mum for 50 years, I only had mine for 28 years.” The colleague was ranking and measuring her grief against mine – in other words her losing her mum is worse than me losing mine. Of course, with my therapist hat on, I know this person was in a lot of pain about her mum passing away and she would have given anything to have her mum until she was my age. But I didn’t have my therapist hat on that day, I was just me, the heartbroken daughter and her comment made me feel so much worse, isolated and hurt. You could even say it’s worse for me BECAUSE I had my mum for 50 years – measuring again!
My friend has been ranking her own grief too, she has a friend in another country who tragically lost her daughter, who was in her early 20’s, in a terrorist attack. She said to me, “my friend’s loss is much greater than mine.” We use those kinds of comparisons as defence mechanisms against our own feelings in order to feel better in that moment. She also mentioned a woman she met recently who was widowed and left penniless and living in a caravan. Of course, that is a dreadful situation and we can have empathy for her and know in our minds that it sounds like a dreadful situation to be in, but we don’t know how that person is actually feeling in comparison to how my friend is feeling. My friend had her dad and husband living with her in her home every day for 30 years and within 5 weeks, they are both no longer there. Yes, she is grieving in a comfortable home with plenty of home comforts, but the comfort she wants is from her husband and her dad. We just cannot measure these bereavements against each other, and when we put our intellectual heads on, we come up with what’s better and what’s worse, but we can’t intellectualise feelings, they are just there in our bodies, they are emotions we feel on a very deep level. Having financial security and a comfortable home, does not reduce the pain of losing a loved one, but it does reduce added stress around the grief and gives you choices to eventually do some things you enjoy, such as a holiday or a social life. Grief is personal, it’s not prejudiced, it does not discriminate and has no boundaries. It’s powerful, all consuming, overwhelming. Having said that, coping with the loss of a loved one with money worries on top of the grieving is very difficult. Studies have shown that financial distress that accompanies bereavement can, and very often does, prolong grief and intensify the feelings. In many cases this can lead to depression, anxiety and mental health issues. So, I think that is something we can measure and compare and know what is worse.
My client, who has experienced chronic, compounded grief from when her relative died, the miscarriage then the IVF loss and so on, has felt isolated, unable to express her deep painful feelings for fear of being judged, as if she has no right to feel so sad and depressed because of what she already has. Yes, it’s clear she’s fortunate to have the financial means to access IVF, she has choices which many people do not have, but, and this but is necessary, it in no way diminishes any part of her heartache. Secondary infertility can be heart-breaking for some people, I have seen this client’s pain, I have seen it in her eyes. She has sensed from some people that her feelings are not legitimate, they have been minimised by others, she has no right to feel the way she does because of what she already has. There has been some insensitivity and thoughtlessness around her, which has caused her to feel angry and hurt. It seems her feelings of grief, have been ranked and measured. This has only served to cause her more distress. She said that in her experience, when you’re perceived as “having it all”, you don’t have a license to grieve as much as the person who has less. What her financial means provides for her is choice, not necessarily successful IVF; and having another child comforts her and enables her to be grateful and appreciate them. It will not serve to quell the longing for another child or the one she lost. For someone who does not have the choice of IVF, they could come to acceptance and recover quicker because they have no other choice – so choice is not always beneficial. I hope and pray there is a happy ending for my client and I hope her story will enable others to open up and not hide away from their feelings and not feel guilty or judged by others. To know their feelings are legitimate and valid and need to be heard and witnessed.
There are plenty of platitudes around loss and grief that are unhelpful and diminish and measure grief.
It’s the circle of life – I don’t care about the circle of life, I just want my mum back
He’s in a better place now – where is that better place, I want to go there
At least you have another child – so I can’t grieve for the other one then
She’s at peace now – well she might be, but I’m sure as hell not!
At least he had a fulfilling life and you did so much together - but I want to do more, we had so much planned for our future together
You can try again for another child – but I want that child
She’s out of pain now – I’m in immense pain and I want my mum to make it better
I know how you feel - no you don’t
There’s a reason for everything - what possible reason could there be….
Well, it’s your dog, you can get another one, it’d be worse if it was a person – not for me it wouldn’t – my dog was a person to me, my best friend
It’s been 6 months now; you should be feeling better – should I? There must be something wrong with me then
Come on let’s go out and take your mind off it – I just want to go to bed and not wake up
Would you really want her back with all the pain she was in – Yes, I would, it’s my mum and I’m in pain, I want her back the way she was before the illness
He wouldn’t want you to feel like this, he’d want you to be happy – I’ll never be happy again
Were you close? – does that mean I can only grieve to a certain level because we weren’t that close
I know from experience both professionally and personally that the above statements are usually meant well and come from a good place. However, although meant well, we don’t always consider how those comments land on others. Other people want us to feel better when we’re in pain, it can also make others feel uncomfortable and remind them of their losses and potential losses so they try to suppress our grief. Particularly here in the western world where the culture is to keep your feelings to yourself, you can cry but only for a certain amount of time. And of course, you mustn’t get angry. I heard a comment about a lady whose sadness turned into anger, of which is perfectly natural and very common. Someone said it was very uncomfortable when the bereaved friend became angry in the restaurant. Maybe this person doesn’t know that when we are in pain we lash out, maybe they have not suffered a deep, tragic loss. It’s so easy to judge someone else’s pain and how they express it. This is an example of judgement and lack of empathy and shows a lot about how the other person feels about emotions and how they are expressed. Anger often substitutes sadness and heartache.
In the culture we live in, in my opinion, there is still, in the main, that “stiff upper lip” approach, I know it’s changing and mental health is talked about far more than ever before, and social media is helping to spread the word. There’s a long way to go, and change is happening, thankfully. I have been to funerals where not one person was openly crying. I cry easily, and I express how I feel, but I have felt uncomfortable openly crying at some funerals as if I didn’t have a right to cry so profusely as I was not particularly close to the bereaved family, so there I was, ranking and judging myself. Maybe we all do it in some way to ourselves and others.
I am 3 years and 3 months on from my mum passing away. I am the grieving daughter and I shall remain the grieving daughter. The time between the intense grief becomes longer and the feelings become less intense in the main. But there are plenty of times when it overwhelms me. As it did yesterday; I was in a supermarket where my mum shopped regularly, I saw one of her friends and then I saw a man who looked just like my friend’s husband who died last year. I was overcome with emotional pain. I got to my car and cried all the way home. When I stopped the car, I was able to release the pent-up feelings, I sobbed and sobbed. Phoned my friend, the grieving wife and daughter, felt guilty as she is the main griever (there I go ranking again – see, it’s in us all), and we cried together, I miss my friend deeply.
I don’t want anyone to say to me that I should feel this or that. I do not want my feelings of deep grief to be judged, diminished, measured or ranked. I had my mum in my life, physically for 53 years, which equates to 19,345 days, 3 years and 3 months of grieving amounts to 1,186 days – there is no comparison - I didn’t know life without her. My deceased friend was my friend for 30 years. He was my friend and remains my friend: and she was and is my mum, my best friend, my confidante, my therapist, my everything. I still feel her in every cell of my body, I cry as I write this. She is in me, my daughters, my brother and my nephew. I only have to look in the mirror and I see her. My daughters are so much like her in many ways, they both have her smile, they wear her clothes too. My brother is the spitting image of her. I can see her in my nephew’s face. We all have the same sense of humour. I hear her when we laugh. I feel her when I cry. I dream about her. I didn’t have a close relationship with my dad, and my mum was my mum and my dad, she did both roles. She is in my heart, her blood runs through mine and my children’s. I feel her energy around me and I know she is watching over me and her beautiful granddaughters, her son, her nephew and the rest of her family.
I know what I want from others in my grief. I want to be accepted for how I feel from one day to the next. I want someone to say to me, it’s ok to feel how you feel 3 years on. I want people to know how much my friend’s husband meant to me. I am not the main griever, her and her sons are, I am a family friend and I can witness their pain. I am fortunate that I can share my pain with my friend and I have another very close friend who can and does witness my grief too. I want to be empathised with. I want no judgement, I want no ranking of my feelings, I want no measurements made. I know in my intelligent mind how fortunate I have been in having a mum like mine and a friend like mine, but I need time to remember them with more love and less pain. I don’t know how long that will take. I do know that I can look at more photos of my mum now and I can look through her clothes and smell her scent and not breakdown as much. I know one day I will be able to go to my friend’s house and not feel the emptiness in their home, and expect to see him doing his usual thing, it’s early days. But I will get there and so will my friend. One day.
We are never the same after such a fundamental loss and life change. The essence of us remains but it is hidden for a while. What I want for my friend is for everyone to be patient with her and how she is grieving, her sadness, her anger, her pain. I want her to be patient with herself and I know that she too will remember her dad and her husband with more love than pain.
I want for my client, for people to witness her pain and not judge it, not measure it, not rank it. To see her pain and loss beyond what she already has. She has also had a fundamental change in her life. She has learnt a great deal about herself and others during her time of suffering. Of which she describes as a positive experience. She has found some meaning in her suffering.
We all connect with our loss and our grief, and we’re all capable of continuing those bonds with our deceased loves ones. We will all keep our loved ones in our hearts no matter what. What we need is patience, empathy, time, and love.
It’s a privilege to support my friend and all of my friends through their suffering and pain and a special privilege to have them support me.
I am fortunate be have clients who entrust me with their pain and suffering and to witness their grief and pain. It is more than a job, it’s a heart to heart, soul to soul connection.
We are all united in our grief and suffering and I hope you can share yours with someone who just asks you what you need at this sad time, and they are there for you.
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.
Suffering is an eradicable part of life, even as fate and death.
Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
Joanne Freeman, Integrative Therapist, Accredited and Registered
PLEASE SPEAK TO A GP, A PROFESSIONAL THERAPIST, SAMARITANS 116 123 OR PHONE 111 OPTION 2, IF YOU ARE FEELING VERY LOW AND / OR SUICIDAL.