My father passed away in 2018 when I was twenty-one years old. In my friend groups, I was the first person to have experienced loss so upfront, which kind of made me the expert on it in their eyes. That isn’t to say that I handled things ‘well’ or dealt with my grief gracefully, not at all. But I had experienced something that they didn’t really understand, and so automatically, I was different.
This meant that whenever they knew an individual was experiencing the death of a loved one, they turned to me. They’d tell me about it as if looking for some kind of answer. I always said the same: there’s nothing you can really say, so don’t worry too much about what you say, all that matters is that you’re there. I don’t think they appreciated the answer. I didn’t really appreciate my new role as an expert on death.
But I noticed another phenomenon happening as well. I saw that when someone I knew unfortunately experienced a loss for themselves, it was often stacked against mine.
One of my best friends lost her grandmother quite suddenly, and when I tried to comfort her, she immediately tried to relativise what she was going through. It was as if she was trying to prove that she knew her loss wasn’t ‘equal’ to mine, because it was a grandparent rather than a parent.
She seemed to fear that I’d be offended by her grief, like it was an insult to my own. But when it comes to grief, I’m not competing, and neither should anyone else.
People assume that grief follows all the rules and sticks to family roles. They think a grandparent hurts less than a parent, which hurts less than a sibling and definitely less than a child. But this ignores so many factors. Firstly, it doesn’t consider that everyone’s family looks different, and you might have closer bonds to certain people.
When I shared my struggle after my father’s passing, an old teacher reached out and told me how much they struggled with the loss of their grandmother, who had raised them as their parents were working full-time. As a result, she had adopted a maternal role in their life. So losing them was like losing a parent, and yet it felt like no one gave them the room to grieve.
Secondly, it negates the other factors that influence your grief. Whether you were prepared for the loss or taken by surprise. Whether you were on good terms when it happened.
Grief doesn’t exist in a bubble of our emotions; it’s influenced by so many things. For example, my grief was worsened by a breakup at the same time and the deterioration of my pre-existing mental illness. Other people will have other factors that influence their grieving experience.
But the point is that we don’t have to count and examine these factors, and we certainly don’t have to stick to a family hierarchy for how much grief someone is allowed to feel. Grief is unique to each person and sometimes, it simply cannot be explained. Whether it’s your first experience with death or your fifth, whether it makes sense to others or it doesn’t, your grief is your own.
We can’t measure grief because what you get at face value is only a fraction of the real experience. Grief can be like an iceberg, small on top, like a smile and a shrug, and then below the water it goes on for miles, with regret, anger and loneliness trapped within that smile.
You don’t know how someone is doing from an “I’m fine”, so don’t assume they aren’t having a hard time just because they’re trying to be agreeable. And for people grieving, please don’t try to be agreeable. That was one of my biggest mistakes, and I wish I had been more honest.
I lost my father suddenly and way too soon, yet I didn’t start my grieving process for almost a year. That wasn’t because I didn’t care, it was because I physically could not handle that loss. I could not even contemplate the severity of those emotions, and so I went on autopilot just to survive. I didn’t take care of myself, I pretended to be fine, I numbed my pain and I focused solely on getting through each day.
To an onlooker, my grief probably seemed small, as if I wasn’t struggling. But to someone who knew me better, they could see that the pain was so great I couldn’t even consciously carry it.
Everyone experiences grief differently. Even if it seems like someone isn’t grieving, there may be so much under the surface. Some grieve immediately, and some take time. Some grieve with others, and some do it in silence. It’s up to that person to do what feels right for them. So don’t create a competition out of grief because you don’t know someone’s experience.
The main reason why you shouldn’t compare people’s grief is that you really don’t have to. I can grieve the loss of my father and someone else can grieve the loss of their partner. There isn’t a limited amount of grief to go around. We can all share in this experience.
Since experiencing a loss firsthand, I feel connected to anyone else who has gone through this. It’s an understanding that I can’t quite get from other friends, no matter how much they want to help. Only people who have experienced such loss understand the depth of it, the way it makes you look differently at life. So instead of pitting ourselves against each other or not sharing our pain for fear of offending, find comfort in each other. Find solace in knowing that someone else has gone through this too.
Whether or not it makes sense to you, everyone's grief is valid. There is enough space for all of us to be grieving our own losses, as at some point, everyone will have to go through this. So instead of isolating ourselves or others, we should find comfort in those who can give us a hand. We should focus on what we have in common rather than picking at the differences.
Your grief may not be my grief, but I see it, and I respect it.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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