Let's Stop Comparing Our Suffering — Grief Is Not A Competition

by Laura Spiegel
Tetiana Lazunova/Getty

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m devouring a giant sandwich and eavesdropping on a conversation at a nearby table. Egg and cheese drip down my hands. As I contemplate a truckful of napkins or maybe just a fork, I overhear the bad news.

Someone walked into a fellow diner’s open garage and stole a high-end power washer. Her table mates “tut” with sympathy and the promise of prayers.

I roll my eyes toward my plate. Don’t these people have real problems?

I wish my judgement was limited to strangers, but alas. There are times when a family member or a friend will describe a piece of personal news while I silently cast stones. A tournament lost, a D+ earned, the foundation of a house detached by a deranged mole. A promotion foregone, a husky passed, a root canal performed with questionable accuracy. These are setbacks for sure, and some of them are real doozies. But if devastation is on display when casual disappointment would suffice, I reach for my robe and gavel.

My penchant for judgment kicked into high gear after my daughter was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. One day, I was freaking out about work along with everyone else. The next, a physician was citing statistics that would change the entire way our family thought, felt, and operated.

Any other moms out there relate? “Your kid has to wear a mask to school? Get over it. My kid has cancer.” Drop the mic.

But if my inner comparisons have taught me anything, it’s that it could always be worse.

I hate that COVID has extended into another school year, but my kids have good teachers who are trying their best. What about those girls in Afghanistan whose dreams of education have crumbled?

My mom has cancer and time is finite, but she has lived 79 years of laughter and love. What about the local teens just killed by a drunk driver?

My daughter lives with cystic fibrosis, but she reads like a boss and flies down the track with glee. What about the friend who lost her child? Or the friend who would give anything to have one?

Thinking in this way can cultivate perspective. But here’s the thing. When taken too far, it can also rob us of the opportunity to sit with our own emotions. Frustration. Rage. Devastation. Grief. All are valid, and all have a place in our lives. If we can’t acknowledge and accept these emotions when they arise, how can we begin to process them?

It can also distance us emotionally from others. When I silently weigh a loved one’s troubles against my own, I’m dismissing the common humanity associated with suffering and failing to listen with compassion and empathy. I’m robbing myself – and my loved one – of the opportunity to connect authentically with another human being.

There is no established standard for sadness. What knocks me down may be just a bump in the road for you. My hiccups may burn you alive.

But who cares? This isn’t the Grief Olympics. Sometimes, we all just need to hear, “That sounds hard, and I’m here for you.”

I’m working on retiring my scale. When someone shares a hardship with me, I’m trying to take a moment to acknowledge the thoughts that immediately flit into my brain. Some are reasonable; some aren’t. There’s usually an It could be worse in there somewhere.

But that’s okay. The more I recognize my rush to compare, the more I can begin to loosen its hold over me. And the faster I can get back to doing what matters most: loving myself, loving others, and accepting love in return.