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Comparing Grief

June 11, 2010

My old friend and college roommate Pam Cytrynbaum is coming up on the horrible, awful, unfair, totally sucky first anniversary of her brother’s sudden death from an incredibly rare intra-cerebral hemorrhage. Since days after his death, she has written beautifully, deeply, movingly about her intense journey through grief at Psychology Today’s Because I’m the Mom blog.

I am blown away once again by her June 4 entry, “The Hierarchy of Grief: Who IS the Biggest Loser?” Here’s an excerpt:

“Do some of us win(lose) the Great Grief Competition? Are some losses literally worse than others?

“Why do people keep devaluing their own grief in deference to mine? It just happened again. An old friend who recently lost her mother, who was in her 80s, reached out to say she was thinking of me as we approach the grim ‘year anniversary’ of my brother’s death. She said what so many people say … “I was thinking of you and how awful it’s been for you and your family. Losing my mom was hard but it’s different for you.”

“Is it? Is there some empirically higher emotional cost attached to the loss a beloved younger brother that is not attached to losing a beloved older mother? Am I in more pain than she’s in?”

I gotta admit, I’ve shared Pam’s friend’s thought. Even though Pam and I both lost younger brothers, it has crossed my mind more than once in the past year that my loss did not compare to hers.

A few months after my brother’s fatal accident in 1993, it was Pam who organized a gathering of our group of college friends at her place in Chicago. It was the year of our 5th college reunion, but everyone decided to fly in for this more intimate reunion instead, in part to support me in my time of grief.

My brother had been 21 (though the newspaper report said he was 31) and I was 26. He was just coming out on the other side of a particularly difficult period in his life, and there was lots of hope for his future. He was becoming an adult, and, finally, we had the potential to nurture a real friendship. Up to that time, our lives had been five years and many worlds apart. So much of my loss feels like the loss of a relationship that could have been. So much of Pam’s loss is for a longer relationship that already was.

Amazing what 20 years or so can do for a sibling relationship. If I recall correctly (it’s amazing how my of my college life is such a blur … and I didn’t even drink), Pam and I spent at least a little time lamenting and analyzing the misguided lives of our younger brothers. My brother’s life was cut very short at a time when he was turning it around. Pam’s brother’s life was cut tragically short at at time when he was profoundly helping so many young people turn their lives around.

Let’s see what other ways I can compare so that my grief seems like it should be somehow less than Pam’s.

My brother died in a car accident, something that, in theory, seems somehow preventable.
Her brother died from a freak medical problem that no one could have prevented.

My brother was young and single.
Her brother left behind a wife and a 1-year-old son.

My brother wasn’t really part of my everyday life at that point. I had hopes we would become friends as we got older.
Her brother was her best friend.

See what I mean? It’s so easy to compare. But why? To what end?

The amount of anguish allowed in the world is not a “supplies are limited” commodity. Each of us has plenty of space for our grief. Each of us makes a singular journey as we slog through that grief. And each of has no need to diminish that grief in order to elevate another’s. Thank you, Pam, for the poignant reminder.

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From → Grief / Loss

One Comment
  1. Megan McGowan permalink

    “Wow, what an intriguing topic! So much to think about, absorb, and processes.

    My immediate thought/reaction to the question “Who is the Biggest Loser” is one of similarity and not comparison. One thing is for sure, all of the losses are unique and exclusive to the individual experiencing the loss. I can completely understand someone stating that your friend Pam’s loss is a bigger loss than that of someone’s 80-year-old mother – but, I don’t necessarily agree completely with it. Is the relationship of mother daughter less than the relationship of a brother sister? Some might see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, every facet of a human being and their relationship to others is unique. We don’t always know the characteristics of specific relationships such as the strength, the circumstances, the timing, etc…

    I think there is a lot to reflect upon and am glad I stumbled across your blog. I am sorry for the loss which caused such grief but am thankful for the priceless moments and precious memories.

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