A Grief Support Blog

This blog will allow you the opportunity to acquire both support and guidance after experiencing a significant loss.

Grief: Why Comparing Losses Never Helps and Often Hurts

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 and grief. 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.

 

In this video, Russell Friedman and Cole James discuss comparing loss in detail:

 

 

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 emotional 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.

Comparison Robs Dignity.jpg

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 grief recovery actions that are also as unique and individual as you and the relationship you are grieving.

If you found this article helpful, you may also want to read Support for Grief: The Other 40 Losses. You can download our free Grief eBook and also search our Grief Blog for other helpful articles, or subscribe to stay current as articles are published.

Comments

This is the most helpful article I have seen while researching my grief today. It completely corroborates my own inherent understanding of what grieving is to each of us. It is simply _personal_. I cannot know another’s grief, and they cannot know mine, exactly. A recent death in my family occurred and it was tragic for having been accidental, involving a young man who was incredibly well-loved by so many friends around the country and of course by his family.


In the process of my own grieving as this young man meant a big chunk of my world to me, well-meaning people tried to advise that as I was not his mother, it must be worse for her and words to that effect. Since the mother happens to be my daughter and I witnessed the instant she received the final word her son is gone for good, these comparisons did hurt because I know like no one else the hurt I felt at seeing her witnessing her worst nightmare, being helpless to change it, in addition to feeling my own gut-wrenching loss, shock at losing my grandson.


Others said things like "Be strong" and words to that effect. Would _they_ know how to do that and how does one define "strong" at a time like this? To not display one's grief? Doing my grieving _is_ being strong. It is healing. I am still living. I have numb periods, exhausted periods, sleepless periods, crying jags, gut tightness, anger, the deepest sadness periods.... Feeling those feelings is what I need to do to process the abrupt changes that have been, without welcome, tossed into my life and the lives of nearly everyone I love. Going through the process is what makes me "strong". I am not weak because I do this.


At first and for about a week, in addition to my own grief at these losses, I felt ashamed and guilty for feeling how I am feeling. I now have no doubt that grief cannot be measured like that, cannot be compared like that. When my daughter, who despite her own tremendous grief, also felt my sorrow (because of course we have empathy and compassion as mother and daughter), began to say she thought _my_ grief must be worse than hers for feeling her pain in addition to my own, I disabused her of that thought. I told her essentially what this article teaches. There is no comparing of grief that serves any good. Nor is there any way I want her thinking all of this tragedy is somehow worse for me! I would never want to compound her grief like that. She has her own loss and grief to deal with. No one knows what she's going through exactly, and no one knows what I'm going through exactly. And just as people experience physical pain and would rate it at different grades even with the same injury [as a nurse, I am 100% certain of this], it is all completely personal and we each respond and react to our losses and pain as only we can and do. We can still, also, be there for one another, in support of each other through this difficult, life changing time.


I am so grateful to have stumbled upon this most empathetic and compassionate page.

Thank you Holly for your comment. We are glad that you found this article so helpful! If you need anything or have any questions regarding grief recovery, please feel free to e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are interested in finding a support group in your area for yourself and/or your daughter, you can do so by following this link: https://www.griefrecoverymethod.com/grief-support-groups. Thank you!

feel worse, many a time....3.5yrs later. crying, remorse, guilt, profound sadness. Was not in contact months before he died. I wanted to reach out more than once, but held myself back....stupid reasoning. He overdosed and died. I would gladly have a limb blown off or cut off if in return I could have him back and change the entire situation.

I totally agree with this. I have recently explained to my husband's mother that I have chosen to move closer to my own family with the children. This, of course, did not make her happy. One of the things she said to me was that I was being selfish and had no idea what it was like to lose a child and she would rather lose her husband than a child, which is much worse. I told her, in response, child or husband does not matter in death, we both lost the same person and I am grieving him just as much.

I am so sorry for you loss. And I am glad that you found this article helpful. Comparing losses does not help anyone.

Thank you for this article. It confirms what I was already feeling about loss and grief. One person's grief is not more or less significant than another's.
So glad that the blog was helpful for you Amaurie.
Although, I agree that all loss is loss, I having experienced the loss of a child by suicide, is tremendous loss. I personally cannot imagine a greater loss. But, that does not minimize others losses. That only serves to help me, help others in their own grief journeys. Whether it's a parent, sibling or child, I feel I can relate on an adequate level and help them. It is kind of like mowing a 30 acre farm. If we can mow that large of an area, then we can certainly help our neighbor mow their 10x20 yard. It doesn't mean our farm is better or more important. It does mean, that God has carried us through something huge, so that we can help others in their own moments of " huge!"
Jennifer - I really appreciated how eloquently you expressed your thoughts! I frequently heard the founders of the Grief Recovery Institute ask the question, "Would you take scuba diving lessons from someone who had never scuba dived?" That question pointed out something similar to what you were saying. We can never really help a griever unless we have dealt with loss in our own lives. It is the personal experience of having dealt with loss that helps us better speak to another griever's heart, rather than their head! I sincerely hope that you will look into the training that The Institute offers for running effective groups to support other grievers on their journey to recovery. Your personal experience of having dealt with your child's suicide certainly makes you a perfect person to lead one of these groups that can do far more than just support a person in sharing their own pain. Please go to www.griefrecoverymethod.com and check out becoming a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist!
Although, I agree that all loss is painful , I having experienced the loss of a child by suicide and would say this is tremendous loss. I personally cannot imagine a greater loss. But, that does not minimize others losses. That only serves to help me, help others in their own grief journeys. Whether it's a parent, sibling or child, I feel I can relate on an adequate level and help them. It is kind of like mowing a 30 acre farm. If we can mow that large of an area, then we can certainly help our neighbor mow their 10x20 yard. It doesn't mean our farm is better or more important. It does mean, that God has carried us through something huge, so that we can help others in their own moments of " huge!" But, I do struggle because I have a friend who lost her 85 year old father to dementia two months ago. And I lost my son almost 2 years ago. Problem is, I feel she competes with me. It is the strangest thing and very out of the ordinary. It has greatly effected our life long friendship. I know she is hurting and I have tried to be there for her, but I can't discount my own grief. Losing my child was and is unbearable and I can't just turn that off for her. I don't know how to even do that. It's as if, she all of a sudden wants to " out grief " me as weird as that is. Dementia has become her stance now like suicide became mine. I get that. But she hardly ever mentioned it when he was alive and never saw him much. Now all of a sudden, it's her mission to the public! And when I bring up my own grief, I'm made to feel like it's unimportant now because her grief is so new. It's very disheartening. Has anyone else ever been through this?
Thank you Steve for your thoughts. I appreciate that and I will certainly look into that website. I made another follow up comment but didn't realize I hadn't erased my first one. Haha. Oops. Thank you again.
Jennifer - It was wonderful to hear back from you! What you are seeing in your neighbor is very common. There is a terrible tendency, when people hear of another's problems and pain to try and "one up them" with their own story. The fact that she never really discussed this before his death and that it is now her "mission" indicates that she likely has a lot of "unfinished business" in her relationship with her husband. She is trying to deal with her grief by refocusing her life on saving others. This is also a common response by grievers. It is certainly a positive thing to help others and save them from the pain you are facing, but it really does very little to help with dealing with your very person loss of that relationship with someone you loved. I am very glad that you are going to look at the website and I hope that you chose to use "The Grief Recovery Handbook" to help you better deal with your emotional pain in the loss of your son. As I said before, I think your concern for others makes you the perfect candidate to become a Grief Recovery Specialist!
Thank you for getting back with me. It was her Father who passed away. And I do think you are right, in that she probably has some guilt and unresolved issues. She is also adopted and for her, this has been a source of pain and rejection that I don think she has ever dealt with. She just lives and shows it. It's really sad, but also hurtful because she totally disregards my own grief. She will not allow me to use my grief , to help her. Or even to talk about it with her. When he dad first passé she told me that " this was her moment, her journey!" I found that quite strange. She still continues to send me horribly sad photos of her dad dying , videos of other people going through dementia which include ER videos and such. And it leaves me not knowing how to deal with it because first of all, the pictures of her dad are super personal and I don't feel comfortable even viewing them. And then second, it's very painful for me to see any types of death pictures or emergency room pictures or videos( my son was found in his room where he lived with roommates with a gunshot to his head) , still gasping and EMS took him to the ER where he passed away. So even today, I can't stand the sound of police cars or ambulances. I still can't even look at the funeral video or even pictures of my son when he was little or videos of him. I'm taking baby steps even after almost two years. But he was my child. My first born son also. I've tried to nicely explain all of that to her, but it seems to only make her agitated and she can't understand why I wouldn't want to watch the videos or pics since it's about her father! What can I do? I'm so lost As to know how to be her friend in her grief while also dealing with the worst tragedy of my life!
Jennifer - All you can do is to just tell her that, while you appreciate her pain during this time, it creating more pain for you in your journey through the loss of your son, and that you do not want to let that pain destroy your relationship. Tell her that you value her friendship, but that it will be better to talk about other things. The fact that you cannot hear a siren or look at a picture of your son without it being painful for you tells me that you would really benefit from taking action with the Grief Recovery Method. I realize that you are a person of faith, and that you have been using your faith thus far as your "rock" to get you through this. In addition to that faith relationship, you also had an emotional relationship, which is where the Grief Recovery Method comes into play. It will help you deal with all of things that you wish might have been different, better or more in that relationship so that you can once again be able to enjoy the fond memories that each of those pictures holds for you. I am sure that you may think that might never be possible, but please believe me that taking this action can really make a difference. Over the years, I have worked with many people who have dealt with similar losses and never thought they could move beyond that emotional pain. They were stunned when it worked and that they could once again embrace those pictures and memories of the past without it breaking their hearts. Choosing to recovery from emotional loss does not mean that you "forget" or "get over it." Instead, it gives you the poser and ability to survive and thrive in spite of it. Once you have take action for yourself, you will also find that you then have the energy to better deal with other people who are stuck in their grief, like your neighbor. Please know, Jennifer, that I am not trying to sell you anything. Taking this action costs very little money (the price of the book), It will cost you the time it takes to read that book and follow the action plan, which has nothing to do with therapy, but at the same time is therapeutic! The net result is that instead of random things reminding you about your son's death, and all the heartache that has come with it, they will remind you of the joyful moments he brought into your life. I really want your to be able to once again be able to enjoy his life, rather than just remembering his death!

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