Why Do We Measure Grief in Units of Time?

When we hear that someone has suffered the loss of a loved one, we inevitably ask them how long it’s been. We ask this so that we can make a determination on how tragic their situation is. The more recent the loss, the more sympathy we usually give the person. While it makes sense that trauma that is very fresh is usually the most difficult, and the minutes, hours, days, and weeks after the loss take the most out of us, I think the longer the grief the more damage. If you tell me you lost a loved one a week ago, I am of course going to feel deeply for you, because you’re right there in the thick of things, and it is likely on your mind every minute of every day. However, if you tell me you lost a loved one 20 years ago, I’m going to feel the same level of empathy for you (while some might brush it off as a distant scar you’ve likely healed from by now). Let me explain.

After I lost my sister, it was the lowest point in my life. It was by far the worst pain I have ever felt in my life and will likely be the worse thing I’ll ever have to endure. She was my best friend and we grew up together for 27 years. I watched her take her last breath and climbed into her hospital bed with her until she started to get cold. Other than occasionally dozing off into very shallow and brief sleep, I got no rest for about 6 months after it happened, and the rest I did get was filled with traumatic nightmares. I cried throughout the night and day. I didn’t want to exist. The pain was so intense I could barely breathe or carry on. Now that two years have gone by, the pain is not as intense. I’ve worked through a lot of it. But that doesn’t mean it is any easier. I’ve lived with two years worth of damage. Two years without her.

You may say that it’s made me stronger, but is that really true? Hasn’t it just made me weaker? A jaded shell of my former self? Every year that goes by is another Christmas without my sister. Another birthday. A year I would have been at her wedding, a year I would have met her first child. My wedding without her as my maid of honor. Without her as Aunt Jilly to my future children. More time means more things she’s missing. I think the longer we go without someone we love, the greater the pain. Sure, it’s not as intense as it was on Day One. But the pain we feel each day without our loved one aggregates and is much greater overall.

Also, the first few months without your loved one you can make excuses for yourself, like not going to work or drinking too much. People cut you slack and are more available for support. But once a certain amount of time passes the world expects you to get your shit together and move on. They stop checking in, stop sending you flowers or meals, stop letting you off the hook for missing things. “Be an adult,” they say. “Yeah, it sucked. But life goes on.”

The same concept applies to the loss of a pregnancy. When we meet someone who’s lost a child (and she is brave enough to talk about it), we inevitably ask her how far along she was. Does this information really matter? Not really – a life is a life. But we use it to make a determination of how much sympathy to give her. While I agree that the farther along a woman is in her pregnancy, the more emotionally attached to the child she usually is and the more traumatic the birth or D&C/D&E is, but a loss is a loss. To some people the earlier losses are actually harder because they had less time with their baby and were robbed of more memories and milestones.

My miscarriage, as indicated in my medical record, was diagnosed as a “late miscarriage” and a “second trimester miscarriage” by my midwife. But that doesn’t mean my loss was any harder than a woman experiencing a chemical pregnancy or very early loss. Maybe the woman who experienced a very early loss had been trying to get pregnant for years and had finally “succeeded,” only to have it taken away. I only tried for two months so I have no idea what that must have been like for her. I can only imagine the huge toll infertility takes on a person and their marriage. And even if she didn’t struggle to get pregnant, she still lost a human being she carried but will never hold.

The same can be said the other way — my 13 week miscarriage isn’t seen as bad as a stillbirth, for example. I technically did deliver a baby born still, but she wasn’t big enough to qualify for that classification. And just like the woman with a chemical pregnancy probably wishes she made it to 13 weeks, I wish my daughter had made it to 20+ weeks. Because then I could have carried her longer, felt her kick, and held her in my arms before saying goodbye.

Although my story isn’t as sad as a woman’s who has delivered a stillborn, my daughter was a beacon of hope for me — my dream come true. She was named after my little sister who died too young. My daughter’s death was like losing my sister all over again. Because a life had been taken but a new life had been given. Not to replace my sister of course, as that would be impossible, but the Universe’s way of throwing me a bone. Again, I’m not saying my pain is any greater or less than anyone else’s, I’m simply saying time cannot define our grief. Everyone’s story is unique and a loss is a loss. Only the bearer of the pain can determine how great it is. A unit of time means absolutely nothing if you don’t consider other factors. We should give each other the benefit of the doubt — the doubt we know exactly what the other is going through.

And to be clear, I’m in no way “above” these easy snap judgments. I seek to practice what I preach. I feel “unworthy of grief” when I talk to stillborn and infant loss mamas, because I feel like my pain is not even in the same league as theirs. And I feel angry/hurt/jealous when I talk to people who lost loved ones to cancer later in life, because my sister was taken so young. But that is terribly unfair to us both. A woman’s later pregnancy loss does not invalidate or minimize my early loss, and my loss of a young sibling does not invalidate or minimize someone’s loss of an older relative.

I think we all need to make a conscious effort to show empathy for every situation, even if we don’t understand it or think we wouldn’t feel the same way in the same position. Instead of judging someone’s pain based on time, we need to listen to them and hear what they are feeling. Whatever trauma you’ve suffered, I think you’re entitled to take as much time as you need to grieve it, even if that’s the rest of your life, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you should be over it by now. Don’t let anyone minimize your pain. And by the same token, never minimize anyone else’s pain or make a judgment about how you think they’re exaggerating it for sympathy.

Everyone’s story is different, but trauma is trauma, grief is grief, and every loss of life is a tragedy.

One comment

  1. This is beautifully written & so very true. Your sweet family on earth & in heaven remain in our prayers. We love y’all.


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