This pandemic is an evolution in many things—plans, treatments, predictions, messaging—but I see one consistent byproduct: the conflicted feelings of comparative suffering. All of us have lost something, but there are those who have lost everything…and that can make us feel guilty about mourning our own losses.*
My dad died shortly after I turned 21, and within a year or so, one of my mom’s friends lost her husband, too. My mom invited the friend over to offer some support and their conversation left a lasting mark on me. It was where I learned how “at least” is rarely the start of a helpful comment when it comes to support or empathy.
My mom was attempting to connect with the woman by telling her that she knew some of what she was going through because of her own loss. “But at least you had a chance to say goodbye…” was the friend’s response. You see, my dad had died after a struggle with cancer. The friend’s husband had died in a tragic crash. My mom was taken aback by the comment and tried to “defend” her own loss, “Yes, but I also got to see him suffer for months…”
It was the strangest damn thing. An effort to comfort and support became a grief ranking. Frustrating…but very human. Turns out we humans are a very frustrating bunch.
But being aware of this tendency helps us to tame the comparative suffering beast a bit. Recognizing it and then reminding ourselves that both “sides” are true allows us to both feel for ourselves and others. Everyone’s pain is their own.
When the reality of school closings and events canceled started to take shape, as a parent, my heart immediately started breaking. The death toll from the coronavirus felt very distant at that point, but my son’s losses were right in front of me. He is an involved school kid, and he lost a lot: concerts, competitions, a play that he was the lead in, and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Iceland with his buddies. In fact, I started a list of “Covid castaways” to chronicle all the “misses.” The list grows every week.
When I first talked to him about these things, I started to choke up. “Aw, Mom—you don’t get to be more upset than I am…don’t worry, I’m all right,” he comforted. But I think his seeing my acknowledgment of the pain helped him. It is a sad thing, and he (and we) are not being selfish to feel badly about it.
It is our immediate instinct to downplay the loss because we know others have it so much worse. Death. Illness. Job loss. A missed school play seems so trivial in the light of these losses…but it still hurts, and the hurt is valid.
Everyone’s experience is differently the same… we are home and isolated doing what is helpful but doesn’t feel helpful at all. Not when there are others who are doing so much more and suffering so much more. Whether we are worried about our financial futures or are mourning the loss of a loved one, the spectrum of anxiety, loss, and hurt is vast. Yet we are indeed all in this together.
It is only when those of us on the “loss spectrum” don’t honor or acknowledge those further down the spectrum that the embracing of our own feelings can really turn into a negative. Our pain may be all that we feel firsthand, but it doesn’t mean that it is the only pain that exists or matters.
It really boils down to two things:
- No matter what degree of pain you are going through, it matters, and you should acknowledge it and feel it while at the same time validating those who are dealing with what we understand as more pain and honoring that but also understanding that that doesn’t mean your own pain isn’t painful nor is anyone else’s because all pain is painful.
- #1 applies to everyone.
This pandemic has been a huge exercise in learning that feeling for the losses of others does not mean we have to deny our own losses. Nor does feeling our own pain take away from our capacity to be empathetic and supportive. The more we strive to understand it all, the better we will come through it.
And wouldn’t it be great to come through it having learned to be kinder and more caring to one another?
A girl can dream.
*Please know that the above rambling does not constitute my thinking I am an authority on any matter. If you are interested in reading more on this subject from actual experts, Brené Brown and David Kessler are great resources.