My pain, your pain, their pain
(I edited this about 2 hours after its original posting when I realized I could have been clearer)
Oh admit it…there are moments when you are certain that your pain is the WORST. I think it is OK to admit that to yourself because pain is such a subjective thing. I live in a world where people often seem to try to quantify suffering…sometimes it is good to do that (like telling your nurse how bad your physical pain is on a scale of one to ten so that s/he can get you medication) or it can be VERY bad (sad that her baby is dead, but her pain won’t be so bad, she has other kids at home).
In my wise moments, I like to share with people “the worst pain is the one you have” acknowledging the pain of others but in my weakest moments, I still indulge in believing that my life’s pain is worse than anyone else’s (I think that makes me human).
I have a huge respect for honoring the intensity of ones own pain as long as you can find it in yourself to also (perhaps eventually) honor the pain of others.
The flip-side of honoring your own pain is using the ”it isn’t so bad because someone always has it worse than me” method and I’m not a fan of it. This coping skill subliminally tells us that we don’t even have a right to process our pain simply because we think that someone else has “more” and if we don’t process pain & loss, do we ever really heal from it? Also, if we use that method of coping and urge others to do the same, are we not discounting others’ pain and telling them that they don’t have a right to grieve? If we deny people the right to grieve smaller losses based on someone else having a worse one, how do we expect them to ever develop the skills to deal with it when they are the one with the HUGE loss?
(I will admit a specific moment of wanting to leap out of my own skin with irritation hearing someone explain to me that I don’t really need to dwell on the pain of losing my partner of 26 years because “someone always has it worse”. )
My mother is the least nurturing and least understanding person I know…my sister in law and I have a saying “If you feel bad about something, call her she will make you feel significantly worse”. No matter what pain I have ever felt, she discounted it immediately “Oh that is nothing, I read in the paper today that someone____”. (Funny, when she is upset about something, she never mentions people in the paper who have it “worse”). In time I realized that going to her for support was like going to Home Depot to buy bread – no matter how much you wanted or needed bread, you were simply NOT going to find it there (so quit looking). I remember once saying to her “does a man grieving the loss of his leg not have the right to grieve because another fellow lost both legs?” Using her logic, moms who suffer the deaths of one twin or those who go on to have more babies or widows who remarry have no right to grieve and I reject that idea.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been contacted by a woman who had an early pregnancy loss who is suffering terribly because everyone in her life is very much expecting her to overcome her loss very quickly and she simply cant recover as fast as those around her are wanting her to. The juxtaposition of her need to grieve with the demands of those around her create a storm where her grief recovery is halted and then demands escalate as does her grief. By the time she calls, me, she is beside herself with angst and exhausted of trying to hide her feelings from those who are telling her to not have them. Giving her a safe space to grieve and time to work it out and respect that it is real are some of the best ways to help her.
Another aspect of this is that we can be easily mistaken about what people value most – the loss of which would cause them grief. I once had 2 awful things happen to me at the same time; one was something that people assumed was terrible and painful and they gave me a lot of support; I however, really didn’t care all that much about it and it didn’t cause me nearly the pain people thought it would. The other (almost simultaneous) event that people seemed to take much more casually was, to me, a HUGE, painful, agonizing, misery-provoking, life changing disaster. I found it really hard to interact with people who simply did not understand how upset I was or why. Similarly, when I was in Chaplaincy school, I saw many times that people in the midst of hardship were often much more bothered by something else that took time to have them explain to me.
I will admit to you that in the 52 days since my husband died (and yes, I DO expect to lose count soon…but for now, it is too easy to know how many weekends have passed since he did) I have, on occasion pulled out the “new widow card” nearly demanding that people take me and my pain seriously. I attribute this to the near-insanity of new fresh grief which is something I virtually expect to see from the newly bereaved. (I will admit that as a person who cares for the bereaved, it is exhausting to endlessly deal with people doing that even though its so common and expected.) There is a social time limit on this behavior and even though I can’t tell you exactly how long that is, I think I already reached it. I’m glad that my daughter hasn’t yet returned to her waitressing job lest she dissolve into a puddle in a situation where her “dad just died” card will not be honored.
As we transition from fresh new crazy grief to “you better get used to it cause its not going anywhere” chronic grief, the bereaved and the non bereaved in their midst have to try to find a healthy balance of mutual kindness, healing and support.
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