I’ll be honest – I’m exhausted. And I know I am not the first person to express that in the last five minutes. Between the pending election, the rising cases across the country and constant news updates warning us of another spike in cases, and simply the general unrest, our world is holding a lot right now.
I’ve recently, however, found myself doing something I know is unhelpful. It’s something I can easily point out to others when they engage in it. I found myself looking at my own pain, and comparing it to others’ pain: “Yes, I’m feeling all of these feelings, but I have a job so I can’t really complain.”
This is called comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is the practice of ranking, evaluating, and judging painful events. It is detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. And when we do it to ourselves, it becomes that much easier to do it to others. When we engage in comparative suffering, we feel invalidated, as if our grief does not matter. We are unable to navigate our own sufferings. As a way to cope (or maybe to avoid our pain), we minimize others’ pain. This leads to extreme disconnection from others. It reduces our capacity for empathy, and enhances our scarcity mindset (scarcity meaning we believe things or people are “never enough”).
Yes, there are people out there who have it worse than you. And there are people who have it better than you. But this comparison doesn’t make our own pain easier. Pain is pain. And when we don’t honor our pain, it intensifies. When we don’t honor others’ pain, we conserve kindness and empathy. And kindness and empathy are unlimited resources. No one is served in this conservation.
Antony Polonsky, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, refers to this as the “suffering Olympics.” I am not out to win a gold medal in those games! The most important pain I feel is my pain, and the most important pain you feel is your pain (I’m paraphrasing from the great David Kessler, an expert on grief). Pain is an inevitable part of life, and rather than competing, we can use this to connect with one another. I might not know your pain, but I know what it feels like. I might not know what it feels like to be furloughed during this pandemic, but I’ve felt all of the feelings that underlie that situation: fear, uncertainty, anxiety in checking my bank account every hour to make sure I had sufficient funds.
Comparative suffering disconnects us; we engage in a series of empathic fails which, overtime, erodes our relationships. Empathy connects us, and allows our relationships to deepen in a beautiful, vulnerable, and authentic way.
Grief often feels pervasive, consuming, and taxing. Sometimes, grief is so immense, it is impossible to see outside of it or through it. It clouds our vision to the point of opaqueness. Thus, we are left feeling despondent, defeated, and hopeless.
Grief is not only reserved for the death of a loved one. In fact, there is a type of grief that is commonplace and more universally experienced. Ambiguous grief is the grief we experience when a death has not occurred; rather we have lost something that either isn’t tangible, such as a hope or a dream, or we have lost a person in our lives but they are still living. And yet, despite how universal ambiguous grief is, we struggle to address it.
Even grief related to the death of a loved one is challenging to process. Much of this is due to larger cultural practices around grief. We are not a culture that provides the time necessary to process grief. If your loved one dies, you get three days to attend the funeral. But what if you have a miscarriage? Or you are going through a divorce? Or you are living in a global pandemic? How many days, hours, or even minutes, are we allowed to take off?
The answer is not enough.
Grief is uncomfortable. Oftentimes, we feel it is easier to ignore it, set it aside, or numb the pain. But in doing so, our grief is left unprocessed, which can lead to confusion of feelings, difficulty making decisions, increased conflict with family and friends, and emotional dysregulation. Unprocessed grief can make everyday tasks seem impossible to complete, meaningful relationships challenging to maintain, and our most treasured hobbies rendered seemingly meaningless.
Ambiguous grief could be used to describe how one feels after a divorce: you’re not only losing your spouse, but losing the dream you had laid out for your future. We experience ambiguous grief when someone we love is diagnosed with dementia, severe mental illness, or addiction. They as a human being are still physically present, but their psychological presence has changed dramatically, if not entirely. Thus you have essentially lost the person you came to know and love.
When one has a pregnancy loss, one grieves the loss of an unborn child. While the expectant mother never actually met the child, she is grieving the loss of her dream of who her child would become, the loss of life, the loss of what she thought her family might be. In that fetus, she says goodbye to a promised life. And, depending on how far along she was, the baby might already have a name, a due date, a nursery color picked out.
We even experience ambiguous loss for things that are not as tangible, such as a dream, a hope, or a vision for our future. We can grieve the loss of a dream job, or not being accepted to our top-choice college. And, we can especially experience grief as we witness our world struggling with illness, systemic racism and poverty, and political divisiveness.
How to Support Ourselves
Our culture does not respond well to grief. But we, as families and individuals, can start practicing ways to respond differently to our grief. We can identify ways that are more supportive. This can be challenging, because grief is uncomfortable and unpleasant. Asking ourselves to sit in discomfort is hard. As human beings, we naturally avoid pain as a means of survival. By asking us to sit in this pain actually goes against our natural survival methods! And yet, this is how we allow ourselves to move through our grief. It is important to process grief effectively.
Here are some ways we can start to process ambiguous grief.
Processing our grief can feel challenging, overwhelming, and sad. Yet, in processing it, we are able to integrate it, and create peace within the difficult