If any readers have experienced similar interactions to the ones I am going to ponder within this post, please respond. I am trying to come to terms with and understand what I have encountered for many years now and what I'll describe as the minimization of my grief. It seems that people want to minimize my circumstances. Over the years I have heard the following:
- A mere week after my husband died I was talking to a relative about the sadness and loss I felt that my sons no longer would have their father with them as they grew up (they were 9 and 10 and it was Halloween). My relative snapped back with "There are lots of single parents out there dealing with this - I don't know what your problem is." Trouble with this is that at the time, I don't think I even knew anyone raising kids on their own. I couldn't relate to this.
- Even my beloved Mom, the person who provided me with tremendous emotional support once said, "Think of the war widows" when I was trying to describe the amount of loss and pain I felt. I remember being confused and questioning which war widows she was referring to - the World War Two ones it turns out. But her statement flew over my head because again, I didn't have a point of reference to compare myself to a war widow from 50 years ago, no less.
- A couple months after my husband's death, I went to my dentist, whom I've been going to for 25+ years. I let everyone in the office know my sad news and my dentist's response was that one of his other patients had recently lost her husband too - but she had five children to now raise on her own in comparison to my two. I should feel grateful that I only had two children. This comment and reasoning really knocked the wind out of me. I recall feeling as though someone had punched me. Of course I felt bad about this other woman and her situation. But at the same time knowing she has what can be considered a more challenging situation did nothing to negate or lessen my own feelings of loss. In fact, it just made my own feelings worse because now I felt even guilty for not feeling more grateful and guilt because in some ways I didn't really care about this other person I didn't know. I was scrambling to make sense of my own life and was pretty self-focused. So there was more guilt about that too. I questioned that maybe I was grieving too much, etc.
- I attended a grief support group sponsored by a local church for about five months - it started two months after my husband's death. The group wasn't a good fit because with the exception of one other widow, it was made up of divorced or divorcing moms. Once there was a huge debate where the divorcees kind of turned on the two of us, claiming that they had it worse because they had to still interact with their deadbeat husbands. And that had to be more painful than having to deal with the onetime loss of a spouse due to a death. I was pretty flabbergasted with this reasoning and had enough sense to not get into an ongoing argument that would never have been resolved.
I do remember that it served as a light bulb moment when I realized that grief is grief. It shouldn't be measured or lessened for anyone. I knew then that I would never compare my own grief as a widow against that of another widow's. Meaning, if her children were raised and grown, I wouldn't say her life was easier than mine, having to go on as an only parent.
- Then there is the debate over whether the widows who've been caring for sick husbands have less grief than those whose husbands died unexpectedly. When this came up, I remembered my conclusion that grief is grief and I didn't get into the comparison of who has it worse.
- Here is a good one. My grief was supposedly less painful than a woman whose husband had died of old age. This was because they'd shared more time together than the 12 years of marriage I'd had with my husband. Again, I wisely avoided any argument.
- The divorce mediation attorney told me in what was supposed to be kindness that I shouldn't have any trouble getting over my divorce because I was an old pro at grief/loss. A divorce was so much less painful than the death of a spouse, you see. And living through that had made me stronger. This attitude/belief distressed me so much, some weeks later I made a call to my own attorney to voice my upset. I knew she often lunched with the other attorney and I requested that perhaps she could inform him that just because a person has experienced prior grief, it doesn't make them immune to hurting when loss pops up again in the future!
- But my all time favorite is the living in Africa argument. I've been told that I don't really have much to complain about in my life because I'm fortunate enough to live in the United States instead of Africa!
So, basically if I add all this up together, I shouldn't have felt as much grief or less of it because there are others out there in the same boat, there have been war widows or others before me with the same or worse experiences, I only have two children, I wasn't divorced, my husband died after an extended illness (so I guess I had time to emotionally prepare), I was a middle-aged widow instead of a senior, I was an old pro at grief and therefore, stronger and I don't live in Africa.
Might I add that all of these comments and others like them, always came from people who had not experienced the death of a spouse or for some, even a relative for that matter.
But I guess the point I am making here is that grief is grief and it is relative to each person's life and experiences. There is no way to measure it because it is so individualized. I never felt better after hearing stories of other people's hardships, some worse than mine. I can't relate to them because they are not mine. But because someone else suffered longer or more, doesn't mean that I don't feel the pain and intensity of loss. Nor does it mean that I shouldn't have the right to grieve what I've lost.
So often, I've felt guilty for grieving too long or too hard - as though I didn't even have the right to grieve. Or if I grieved openly I was taken to task for it. I used to say, "Don't take away my grief - I've lost my life as I knew it - don't take away my mourning for that too. I'm at least entitled to that."
Is a wealthier person's grief less than mine? No. So, please can we stop the comparisons to Africa and other horrific hardships. I already know that my situation is not comparable to that of a genocide victim or one that has lost a child. I already know that I don't live in Africa. Knowing that others out there have suffered more severely does nothing to diminish my pain and just intensifies it because of the added burden of feeling guilty for having the audacity to grieve in the first place. Add that guilt to what I already feel for not being able to keep up - Beth in NC referred to that as feeling as though she has failed at widowhood. There are so many burdens we're already shouldering. Don't add to the pile.
Say nothing. Don't offer advice, especially if you haven't lost a spouse. The best feedback I've ever received has been from my stepson, age 28, who has just responded in conversations we've had with, "I can't even imagine what it is like or has been like." I don't believe most of the widowed are out there trying to get a pity party going for them. We're describing the pain we're feeling and what we're experiencing. It is our life at the moment. And yet we're usually criticized for not being stronger.
In fact, I don't believe suffering actually makes people stronger. In my opinion, it can make us weaker because we end up being more vulnerable in the future. So I have come to hate that saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I don't agree.
The question I have is why are people so quick to dismiss and minimize our grief? Is it a way of thinking on the national level? You know, Americans are supposed to stand up and face hardship while marching strongly forward? Is it that as a culture, most of us are so quick to speak, yet rarely listen. Is the first response one of trying to come up with a solution so advice is quickly offered? Sometimes, there aren't answers and silence (listening) is the key. As a nation, we haven't been taught much about grief/loss - I think that has really changed in recent years. And maybe even intensify as more baby boomers face loss with illness, death and disability.
I remain perplexed about all of this but in the end, it just kind of convinces me that it is very difficult (maybe even impossible) to try and explain what the journey of widowhood has meant for me to those who haven't been there. That is why I keep coming back to the point of not wanting to talk about it anymore. I've said what I want to say. I end up sounding like a broken record, no one seems to get it and I find all of that very demoralizing as well as tiring. I can understand why some people don't want to make a big deal about their widowed status. It could be easier sometimes, to just pretend everything is okay.