Loss is not an Olympic sport

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

illustration with Olympic rings and shadows of people with raised arms in background
Image by kalhh from Pixabay

Over the last few blog posts, we've been exploring the effects of shame on our experience of grief and the says that our culture's "rules" of grief contribute to shame. In the last post, we considered losses that are invalidated as being worthy of grief, but that's not the only way we may our grief judged as inappropriate.

Even among losses that are validated by our culture as worthy of grieving, we often encounter a hierarchy that sets some losses as deserving a larger grief response than others.

This sort of approach turns loss into a competitive sport that attempts to make some kinds of losses "worth" more grief than other losses, and shame can then be invoked (internally or externally) when the intensity of your grief experience doesn't match the expectations of where it should fall in relation to its competitors.

For example, the death of a family member is one of the most commonly validated losses as "worthy" of a grief response, but we often encounter the idea that the appropriate intensity of grief for the death of a family member should be dictated by where they fall relative to us in our family tree.

This is frequently even encoded in a company's bereavement leave policies where the death of a spouse or a child is "worth" more days of bereavement leave than the death of a parent, which is in turn "worth" more than the death of a grandparent.

These comparisons of worthiness of grief can also show up in other forms, like the age in which someone died (more grief is commonly approved for someone who died young) or the way in which they died (an unexpected death is usually accorded more "worth" than one that came after a long illness).

In reality, our experience of loss and the grief that it generates are made up of many factors that make these kinds of comparisons irrelevant. It's not just a matter of where someone appears on our family tree, but it's also influenced by how close our actual relationship was to that person, whether there were unresolved issues remaining in the relationship, how dependent we were on that person, our experience with dealing with loss in the past, how much other loss we might be dealing with at the same time, our beliefs about the loss or the relationship, how the relationship affected our identity, and much more.

Attempts at comparison become even more irrelevant when we add in other losses that are not death related. By what criteria could we possibly determine which kind of loss is "worthy" of what intensity of grief experience for each person in order to compare one to the next? What might be a crushing loss to one person may be a completely different (and much less intense) experience for another person.

This may seem obvious in abstract, but the challenge is remember this when we are facing our own losses or standing alongside another who is facing loss.

I have often seen these comparisons made in the attempt to comfort someone who is grieving by using the comparison to someone who we believe has faced a more difficult loss to try to make them feel better. (They usually come in the form of "at least" statements, like "At least it wasn't as bad as ....")

In practice, these attempts at diminishing one's grief by comparing it to another's only add shame with the subtle (and perhaps unintended) message that the person in question is not grieving appropriately for their own experience of loss. Instead of offering the comfort intended, we've just dismissed the value of their experience and complicated their grief with a message of shame.

At the same time, the opposite can also happen when we get into the game of comparison. I've also seen these comparisons used to communicate that we don't think someone is grieving with "enough" intensity (whatever that means) because their outward expressions of grief do not match our comparisons to others who have experienced something that is outwardly similar.

However, this is again a case where we can't possibly ascertain from comparisons to others what level, intensity, or expressions of grief are "appropriate" for a given person facing a given loss, nor can we necessarily tell from the outside what their actual experience is. Telling someone that they are doing it "wrong" is again a means of piling shame on their experience of grief and not a helpful means of comfort.

It's not up to us to determine whether someone else is experiencing the "right" level or intensity of grief for a given loss. Nor is it up to us to decide whether the ways they are expressing that grief are "correct."

It's also not useful for us to compare our own grief to that of others who may be experiencing what appears to be a similar loss in order to score ourselves on whether we are doing it "right."

Loss is not an Olympic game to be ranked according to how well we qualify for the approved level of grief expressed or experienced.

Grief is normal response to loss as we make meaning from the experience and create a new life in the aftermath of what (or who) has been lost. That journey through grief and meaning making and adjustment is a unique one for each of us, and allowing ourselves and others the respect to make that journey in our own way is critical to doing so without shame gumming up the works.

Loss and grief are hard enough on their own without piling shame on top to complicate matters.

Have you ever experienced people making these kinds of comparisons during your experience of loss and grief? How did those comparisons affect your grieving experience?

Do you notice yourself inflicting these kinds of comparisons on yourself when facing loss and grief? What prompts you to engage in this practice? How has it impacted you?

Can you think of times when you may have made these kinds of comparisons to others who are grieving? What were your intentions in doing so? How do you think your comments were received by the other person?

What would it mean for you to drop all comparisons for yourself and others when it comes to loss and grief? What other ways might you relate to it instead that could be more supportive and less likely to cause shame?


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