You may have heard of it: The Grief Olympics.
The term comes up when people try to “one-up” each other’s grief by explaining why their own personal loss is far worse. Many of us have engaged in The Grief Olympics in one way or another. It’s human nature to compare and contrast, and we do it instinctively.
Rather than tell you not to compete in The Grief Olympics, I’d rather focus on how to win.*
*How do I define winning The Grief Olympics? After much thought, the only way to win is to participate in a way that does not cause more hurt – to myself or to others.
DO: Compare loss stories.
It is impossible to never compare, so indulge in it from time to time. Think about how your loss is similar or different to someone else’s story. Let your mind wander and think through different memories and scenarios, if it feels right to you. As an example, I found myself incredibly jealous of bereaved parents at my local support group who lost adult children – because they had more time than I did. When I compared my son’s life to their children’s lives, I felt shortchanged. Feeling, and then naming that emotion helped me process my grief a little bit more. I don’t want to be jealous of those families – it’s not helpful for me or them – and letting myself process my gut reaction helped me move through it.
DON’T: Diminish the grief of others.
Loss is loss, and it sucks. Grieving is hard work, and navigating life after loss is a heavy burden for anyone to carry. None of us need someone wagging their finger at us to “move on” or “stop dwelling on it.” It never actually helps, and it can be very hurtful. Being in extreme pain doesn’t excuse us inflicting pain on others.
This could be phrased as adding to the above: Don’t diminish the grief of others…to their face. Sometimes, we have to vent. Maybe we have to get a little judgy and snarky. Find your safe place to vent – your partner, your support group, your best friend, your parents. Whoever it is, make sure it isn’t someone directly involved with what you are venting about – the farther away, the better! In the early months after my loss, I could not stand it if anyone expressed any feelings of loss or grief when their pets died. It made me downright furious, especially if they used the term ‘furbaby.’ In my mind, I knew that pet owners expressing their own sadness was not a judgement on my loss or even a comment on my loss, but in my heart it felt like a direct attack. I needed to talk about it, and yes, complain about it.
DON’T: Assume you know the whole story.
There could be complicating factors or histories playing into someone’s emotional state. Above I mentioned my emotional rage at those grieving pet loss. But of course, my emotions softened when I heard from a friend how her cat dying was emotionally supercharged because it was her late daughter’s cat. It could be someone is dealing with the most intense emotional loss they’ve ever faced, it could be that a seemingly trivial thing is complicated by something else. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if we get the whole story. We can be just as kind without it.
DO: Acknowledge similarities and differences.
It can be healing to talk about things you were able to experience with your baby and also to mourn the experiences you missed out on. Talking about feeling baby kick, or the first ultrasound, or the positive pregnancy test with other moms can help us bond and relive a happy memory. Expressing that you wish you had an experience with your baby – holding them alive, taking them home, nursing, first words, first day of school – can help others understand and support you. So long as we all steer clear of ‘better / worse’ and ‘at least’ phrasing, we should be able to talk openly about our story.
DON’T: Diminish your own grief.
I’ve seen it so many times – people come to support group and then downplay their loss after hearing someone tell a story they view as more tragic. Downplaying your emotions doesn’t help anyone. If you’re broken, be broken. Find those who will support your brokenness and listen. Maybe it’s someone with a similar story to yours, maybe it’s someone who just happens to be a good listener, maybe it’s someone who loves you deeply. Feeling safe to fully express and explore my grief is the only way I’ve learned to navigate it. To carry it. If I was busy trying to justify that it wasn’t real, it would have bottled up in a very unhealthy way. I don’t know how it would have exploded, but it would have.
DO: Practice self care.
Being kind doesn’t mean you have to be the support system for someone else. It doesn’t mean you have to put up with someone who isn’t playing fair. If someone engages in The Grief Olympics with you – you can point out that it’s pointless and hurtful, or you can simply withdraw from the situation. Whatever feels better to you. I’ve seen people get extremely angry and vocal about The Grief Olympics, and everyone leaves upset. Pointing out the bad behavior and / or backing away seems to be gentler on all parties. We are all wounded. Lashing out is bound to happen, but it doesn’t have to spiral.
DON’T: Treat empathy as a limited resource.
People can support grieving moms AND other people who maybe just had a bad day. We don’t need to have ‘the worst’ loss to warrant empathy from others. We don’t need to justify our need to be supported, we just need to ask and find those willing to be there with us. Maybe it’s online, maybe in person. Maybe it’s friends and family, maybe it’s people we meet in support groups. In the early months after my son died, my empathy was a limited resource. I couldn’t support my friends or family through much, and certainly not things I viewed as trivial. I stepped back, and others filled the void. Empathy from a single person may be complicated or limited, but there is more than enough empathy in the world to support us all…we just need to find it.