Tell me if this has ever happened to you…
You share a story of loss, let’s say you lost your job. And the response you get goes something like this…
“You think you have it bad? At least you don’t have cancer, my postman’s brother was just diagnosed.”
“At least you have some savings you can dip into. My cousin lost his job and had to move back in with his parents.”
“This probably means a better job is on its way. At least you have a supportive partner, Mary is going through a nasty divorce right now.”
Do you notice how the phrase “at least” shows up in every one of these responses? Let’s pinky promise to scratch that phrase from our vocabulary because nothing truly compassionate or empathetic ever follows those words.
Comments like these (even if they are well-intentioned) shut. us. down. They quickly compare our loss with something deemed “worse” like cancer or divorce. It becomes a race to the bottom as we one-up each other’s tragedies.
Comparing losses doesn’t honour either person’s experience.
These responses also make it clear that our loss really isn’t welcome here. Maybe it hits too close to home. Or reminds the person of past pain or the precariousness of life. It’s easier to minimize someone else’s grief than remember our own. We shift the focus away from the story being shared when it gets uncomfortable so we don’t have to feel it. Their pain. Or our pain.
Sometimes we rush to share a similar story of loss to show that we understand. I call this “attempathy”. We attempt to empathize by recounting a similar experience. And we forget just how intensely personal loss is.
It’s true that grief is universal (you won’t get through life without it) and every person on the planet has experienced some form of loss. But it’s important to remember that every loss is unique and we’ll never TRULY understand what the other person is going through.
For example, let’s say 2 friends experience the death of their Dad. Friend #1 had a loving relationship with her Dad who was supportive and generous. Friend #2 had a distant relationship with her Dad who demanded perfection in order to earn his love.
They both are experiencing the loss of their Dad. But is their grief the same? Nope. Because each relationship was unique.
The loss is devastating for both. But their experience of grief isn’t the same.
Sometimes we silence ourselves because we don’t want to be a burden. We feel guilty for complaining when others are also clearly struggling. We hold back from sharing and convince ourselves that what we’re experiencing isn’t that bad. Or we default to gratitude. Listing all the things we’re grateful for in order to minimize our pain.
Heartbreak is heartbreak. Assuming someone else’s loss is more or less painful than yours isn’t helpful or fair to either of you. There is no hierarchy of grief.
From Rising Strong by Brené Brown:
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over an empty nest. I’m not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer. You’re feeling shame for forgetting your son’s school play? Please—that’s a first-world problem; there are people dying of starvation every minute. The opposite of scarcity is not abundance; the opposite of scarcity is simply enough. Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbour who’s going through a divorce…Hurt is hurt, and every time we honour our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.”
Have you slipped into comparing losses during the pandemic? It’s okay, it happens. I’ve certainly done it and heard others do it too.
Have you kept your grief quietly tucked inside because you know others are struggling too? Sharing your story doesn’t take away from someone else’s.
Or maybe you default to gratitude, listing all the things you’re thankful for while pushing your loss to the sidelines. Pro tip: you can be grateful and grieve.
So how CAN we hold space when someone shares their pain with us?
Be a heart with ears.
Don’t try to fix it or find the silver lining. Don’t start a sentence with “at least”…ever. Don’t worry about what to say … just listen.
So often we put all this pressure on ourselves to come up with something deep and wise and meaningful to say in response to someone else’s pain (I know I’m not the only one). It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say but I’m so glad you told me.” I’ve literally said this verbatim to others and it’s helped every. single. time.
Show up with genuine empathy.
Remember empathy requires us to connect with the emotion of another person. If someone is sharing their pain with you, empathy asks you to connect to your own pain, which can feel triggering or even overwhelming if you haven’t processed that pain.
That’s why healing our own losses can be the best thing we can do for others. It allows us to hold space for their grief without getting sucked back into the depths of our own. And we’ll be less likely to compare losses or insist on silver linings when we do this work.
What about when it’s your turn to share your loss and grief?
First, only share your story with someone who has earned your trust.
Then, remember these Pillars of Courage.
I love when people set boundaries with me before they share a story. This can look like asking the person to just listen without trying to fix it. Or, it can look like asking them to help you brainstorm ideas because you’re feeling stuck. Or it can look like asking them to help you take a step back because you’re feeling too close to see things clearly. Setting boundaries gives both people a safe space where the conversation can unfold.
Own your story.
When you’ve found someone you trust you don’t need to gloss over the especially messy bits. You don’t need to orphan part of your story because it’s “not perfect”. Embrace ALL of you. Accept where you are right now…not where you want to be or where you think you “should” be.
Share your truth.
It’s okay not to be fine. This reminds me of a couple of lines from a Snow Patrol song “I want you to stay here beside me/ I won’t be okay and I won’t pretend I am” You don’t need to pretend, just be honest.
Ask for what you need.
Someone to listen. Someone to go for a walk with you. Someone to watch a movie with you. A hug. Asking for help makes us feel vulnerable, especially when so many of us have been conditioned to be strong. Remember that the people who love you most want to help you and they’ll always be glad that you asked.
From trusted friends, family, your therapist, your coach etc. Someone who can hold that sacred space for you and has earned the right to hear your story.
Practising the Pillars of Courage requires vulnerability. All the things listed above mean you need to be a bit vulnerable. There’s not one act of courage anywhere (and Brené has asked Navy Seals!) that wasn’t born out of vulnerability.
Comparing losses doesn’t acknowledge or honour either person’s lived experience but we can learn to show up with genuine empathy, be a heart with ears and tell our own stories with courage.