" 'I lost my grandmother four years ago. She was like a mother to me. My own mother and father are still alive today. The loss of Grandma was tough. What I would like to know- is it fair/normal for a person to compare the amount of their grief for the loss of both their parents to the grief/loss I have of both my grandparents? We all handle grief differently but how should I handle this person's behavior towards me? Thanks.'
"Thanks for the question, Lu. I gather from your note that you know someone whose parents have died and this person is trying to tell you that the grief you are experiencing for your grandparents (especially your grandmother) cannot be as great as his/her grief over the death of his/her parents. Your first question actually has two parts: is it normal and is it fair for someone to try and make such a comparison.
"I remember this topic arising in a bereavement group I was recently leading. The first night a widow made the comment that another widow in the group could not be grieving as much as she was. The first widow's husband had died suddenly from a heart attack and she did not have an opportunity to say goodbye to him. On the other hand, the second widow's husband had died after a illness and they must have had an opportunity to settle any loose ends and say goodbye. The first widow reasoned that surely her grief was greater than the second widow's grief!
"In response to the first part of your question, I cannot say that comparing levels of grief is normal, but unfortunately, it is not uncommon. The pain of the loss can be so great it is unimaginable that anybody else can hurt as much as he/she does. To me, this sounds like a desperate cry for help and for others to recognize the overwhelming grief he/she is having to carry.
"The second part of your question involves whether or not it is fair to make such a comparison. The problem with grief comparisons is that I do not know how someone can accurately measure grief – there are no grief rulers or grief scales – and make that judgment call. Mankind has not been able to figure out how one person can crawl into another person's skin and know what he/she is experiencing. Until we are able to discover how to do that, we can guess, but cannot not really know, what is going on inside of him/her and how he/she is feeling.
"As I have written previously, there are numerous factors that affect how we respond to a death: who the deceased person was; the role of the deceased in our lives; our relationship with the deceased; how the person died; our previous loss experiences; aspects of our personality such as age, gender, beliefs, etc.; availability of effective support to us; and the presence of other life stressors we are having to contend with. Which of these influences are relevant and significant in your situation are most likely different from the ones influencing the person you are writing about, but there is no way to know conclusively. Therefore, the person you are referring to may THINK that his/her grief is greater than your's, but he/she has no way of KNOWING if that is true. The impact of your grandmother's death is unique to you; the impact of his/her parents is unique to him/her. It is not fair to either of you to try and compare your unique mourning to his/her unique mourning; one is not better/worse than the other, stronger/weaker than the other, or greater/lesser than the other. They are just what they are - unique.
"Your second question is how you should handle this. When someone is in the depths of mourning, trying to reason with them about grief usually does not get very far. Arguing over whose grief is greater or lesser will accomplish nothing except to amplify the stress already present. So, the first thing to do is to realize that the other person is really hurting (remember how you felt when your grandmother died?) and might say things that are driven purely by emotions. You could also try validating the other person's feelings by stating how you can only imagine what it must be like to lose both parents and how it must cause a lot of pain. You haven't lost your parents, but you have lost someone who was very special to you and you know what it means to hurt."