I once wrote that grief is not a competition, and that if it were, there would be no winners anyway. But there is often an imagined hierarchy of grief. For some of us, it’s somewhat self imposed. For others, it is imposed upon us.
When my wife died, I felt a certain sense of guilt that most of the attention was on me. It was as though I had it the worst because I was not only living with the immediate impact of her death, but also left to deal with raising a confused and grieving child. Together we would be impacted for the rest of our lives.
But what about her parents? What about her brother? What about all of her family and friends? All of these people who had shared so much more of her life than I ever did. Why was I at the top (or perhaps the painfully low bottom) of the tree? Why was the sympathy mostly apportioned to me? Who gets to decide who has it the worst after all?
This last question has been plaguing me recently. Sometimes when I appear down, I’m sure people around me will make their assumptions about why.
‘I know. It’s hard, isn’t it?’
What is? I’ll ask myself.
I can’t ask them this question because they already think they know. They assume I’m ‘grieving’ – that the depressive hole of mourning has pulled me back in. But I’m human; I’m not just a widower. Other things go wrong. Other things and other people affect my mood. I – just like everyone else – experience losses all the time that bring me back down: work, life, relationships, friends moving away – rejections, failures and changes of all kinds that I probably wear outwardly in black. My living problems, which can’t be compared to anyone else’s or measured by the intensity of others’.
For years, I’ve found myself so able to talk about big-G Grief, and yet unable – perhaps even disallowed – to talk about its smaller sibling. We all grieve as a response to loss. Sure, the hierarchy will say we’re not allowed to call it ‘grief’ if it’s not the loss of a life, but the dictionary says otherwise. And often, so do our hearts.
The death of a person presents us with something final – there’s no going back. The loss of something or someone living is painful in an entirely different way. It may involve a choice that presents itself as rejection. It may mean a change that leaves a person feeling left behind. An experience of knowing that something or someone is in reach but can no longer be seen, heard or touched. A living loss that – by its very nature – silently offers hope, but by choice or design deafeningly takes it away.
We all experience loss from the moment we are born. The loss of the womb that protects us and allows us to grow. The loss of the umbilical chord that feeds and nurtures us. The loss of an internal world that kept us safe from the scarier one outside. And yet we move on to experience change, progress and experience, too.
Loss leads us to new versions of ourselves; pain can act as a warning not to repeat behaviours that put us at risk. But being human means that we will continue to experience both without exception or favour. Living losses that are usually more invisible than death, yet still painful to those they affect.
The hierarchy, I believe, isn’t real. Only the incomparable and untransferable pain we feel ourselves is.