Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Worst Grief

Sometimes when we’re feeling bitten hard by grief, or just snarky, we try to prove that we are hurting the most, and that our grief is the worst that anyone has ever experienced. In the entire world. Ever.

I’ve lost a wife in her 40s, three beloved pets (well, one not so beloved), both parents (one to dementia), all my grandparents, a pair of in-laws, a friend to AIDS, two to murder, several to cancer, one to suicide, and a number of young friends to car accidents. As I walk among the tombstones in my personal cemetery, it would be hard to put them on a scale of the worst because they each hit me hard in different ways.

The severity of grief depends upon who died, the status of our relationship with that person, the circumstances of death, the volume and frequency of death in our lives, and what else was going on at the time.

No death is easy. Every death carves its own canyon of unimaginable sorrow.

A wife who dies in her 40s seems more tragic than a wife who dies in her 80s. One death, after a long life of adventures, is expected, while with the other death, we also mourn all the years ahead that were lost.

Many of us feel closer to one parent than another, so one parent’s death affects us more. Do we grieve that one more? But what if one parent was abusive to the other, or to us? Should we feel any grief for a parent who abandoned us when we were young?

Do we grieve close friends we have chosen more than some family relationships we were born into?

I have not lost a child, but I imagine that this might be among the worst losses because we are supposed to protect them. If they died from something like cancer, then there are also our feelings of injustice for a child dying, anger at the cancer, and guilt for not having taken care of them, even if there was absolutely nothing more that we could have done.

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale measures the impact of changes in our lives. On it, the death of a spouse is at the top with 100 points. Divorce is second at 73. The death of a close family member is 63, and I’m guessing that losing a child is included here, since I don’t see it listed separately. Losing a job has 47 points.

Even good changes are stressful, like getting married (50) or buying a house (31), because we have to make major adjustments in our life. If several changes happen at the same time, good and bad, the stress points add up. When our total is over 300, we are at a high risk of breaking down and becoming ill.

Perhaps the first death of someone close is the worst, because not only has someone died, but our childhood belief in the innocence of life may also disappear. Dylan Thomas wrote about this. Maybe the third death in a month unravels us more because it tips our fragile balance over to the dark side, and it seems that everyone we love is either dying or dead. If we’re retired, with our spouse gone, the death of our best friend or pet might be what causes our Tower of Resolve to fall.

Besides who died, and our relationship with them, there is the how.

Was the death from a slow and painful illness? Was it sudden or peaceful? Did they die saving someone else? Was the death a suicide or deliberately caused by someone else? These things can make us question whether goodness exists in the core of every person, and is the foundation of life.

I even find myself mourning the death of good people I don’t know because the world doesn’t have enough compassionate people, just a lot of the angry, too-busy, and self-absorbed. Do we ever get used to people dying and taking parts of us away? Is there a limit to our endurance?

Perhaps the worst grief is the one where we are never able to forgive ourselves for something we caused and can’t undo.

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