Thursday, May 6, 2010

Don't Minimize My Grief

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.


  1. WITM-

    Thank you for your brave post.

    The question I have is why are people so quick to dismiss and minimize our grief?

    Because all death and loss makes Americans uncomfortable to anxious.

    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?

    Power of positive thinking and law of attraction and medical advances collude.

    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.

    To some degree it has changed - VERY minimally.

    And maybe even intensify as more baby boomers face loss with illness, death and disability.

    This is the big kahuna for me and the work I am doing. I view this like the 1960s era where we can garner some societal change because there will be a wave of energy to help push over some walls.

    Please do not give up. Express yourself. There are no comparisons that work. Pain is pain and grief is grief. There is such a thing as complicated grief, but for the purposes of this discussion it does not matter. YOUR STORY HAS POWER, if only in the end to help you mend... and maybe help others along the way and help change our death-phobic and denial-driven culture.

    Early stages of grief are more mute. The farther you go, the more you can say. Think about your ability to speak for those who have no words yet.

    Please do not give up...


  2. You give voice to the place many, many widowed (and for that matter, anyone experiencing grief) find themselves. As the writer above said, there is a muteness to the early days (years!) and just what are we to do when the "volume" of grief gets turned up and others think we should be silent and sally forth?
    Please don't give up your writing about this as it is so real and, I am sure, touching the lives of many with understanding, but, most importantly, eventually your writing will, as it has before, lead you to focus more on the positive. For now, you need to be where you are. There is good percolating out of it. TRUST.

  3. Your idea that suffering can weaken us is an interesting one. In my yoga teacher training, we study the sutras (the philosophy behind the physical practice) and just covered the "tapas", which is suffering or purification through pain.

    One thing my yoga teachers have consistently told me that is that practicing yoga will expose your weaknesses before you can begin to gain flexibility and strength. This makes perfect sense in terms of suffering too. Tragedy exposes our weakness and it is through rebuilding ourselves that we find strength - or not. I don't think adversity makes everyone stronger. It makes it plain to us what we aren't capable of and where our lives aren't as shored up in terms of people who we can rely on and other supports as we thought they were. Sometimes we are able to fix this quickly. Sometimes it comes back slowly. Sometimes we are left to sort things out as best we can with what is left.

    The other thing my teachers pointed out is that it's never a good idea to compare yourself with others because we are too different for that to be a productive thing.

    My first husband's death pointed out a few things to me that I needed to work on, but I became stronger because I rebuilt based on what I learned about myself - not because I suffered.

    Try not to focus too much on what other people have said or done. There unkindness, cluelessness or just ignorance is their problem. You've done and continue to do what you had to. Eventually you will find yourself where you want to be. You are a strong person. Your sorrow and suffering didn't do that, you have done that yourself.

  4. Kim - I am very honored that you would take the time to read and respond to this post as you did and I appreciate your being able to agree with some of my speculations as to why people act as they do. Thank you for the work you are doing and I appreciate your vote of confidence to not give up!

    CCK - Thank you for commenting and your kind words of inspiration. I hoped to help heal myself by starting and maintaining this blog. But I also hoped that it would help others.

    Annie - I'm really grateful for your comments about yoga and having to experience weakness before growing stronger. It helps me view the current emotional place I'm in with more perspective and understanding. I found the words, "Sometimes we are left to sort things out as best we can with what is left" very inspiring! Thank you as always for your good insight into all of this messiness.

  5. You are very brave and I know your writing is helping people who can't find their voice for these complex feelings. Keep on taking it one moment at a time. The only way out is through.
    Seventies Girl

  6. The truth is people can't handle hearing. Hearing us talk about our loss or our raw and
    imense real every second of the day pain. They can not sit still and simply be a friend and listen to us talk out our fears and frustrations and horrors of our loved ones death. I for one just wanted someone to listen to me, nothing was required in returned excepet maybe a hug or tissus. NOT critizing me- I live with what ifs every day.
    Just be there and listen.

  7. I've recently lost my husband after a long battle with COPD... being his only care taker.. watching the man I loved for many years suffering, the comments I have received from people regarding his death amaze me. I have learned alot from reading your blog and It helps me understand why and what I am going thru and knowing I'm not alone.. Thank you

  8. Anonymous - Thank you for commenting during your time of loss. I keep this blog up and going in hopes it comforts, supports or helps someone.

  9. I wanted to reply to Carol's comment about people just listening. I wish I had been more verbal in the early days and told people that I just needed a calm, comforting, listening ear. It probably would have helped. I think people seem to believe that they have to come up with some profound advice or words of wisdom. And that isn't always needed or wanted. A good point to remember.