One phrase bereaved parents often hear is that we’ve suffered “the worst loss.” There is no denying, of course, that the loss of a child is one of life’s greatest tragedies. But although words such as these felt validating in the early years of my grief for Timora, I’m no longer sure what, exactly, they mean.
When my friend Jeff Green spoke at his son Asher's memorial service last Thursday, he touched on people's tendency to rate difficult and traumatic experiences in a hierarchy, as if A is always worse than B, which is always easier than C. There are even one or more official studies out there somewhere assigning each experience of grief a kind of trauma-rank – how bad is this variety of bereavement, compared to that kind? Some maintain that bereaved parents suffer the most; others declare that bereaved spouses and life-partners "outrank" parents – as if it were a competition of some kind. (There are also sub-ranks within categories; for example, parents who've lost an adult son or daughter supposedly suffer more than those who've lost babies or young children.)
Jeff said he believes there's no point in comparing between different kinds of pain. I completely agree with him.
I would be the last person to claim that all traumatic experiences hurt to the same degree. And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones chronicles my process of healing from the emotional agony that my daughter’s death caused me; nothing in my life had prepared me for such pain – even my father's sudden death when I was only fourteen. But I can weigh my inner experiences against each other, because I know what goes on in my own head, my own heart, and my own body. In contrast, another person might try to explain to me what she is experiencing, but all the words in the world won't put me in her place. So how can I presume to “compete” with others over whose losses are more devastating?
As a psychotherapist, and generally as someone who takes a keen interest in other people's lives, I hear a great many painful stories. What is one to make, for example, of this? A forty-four-year-old woman who finally found her life partner just a couple of years ago, is now pregnant – miraculously, to her – after having longed for a child for the better part of her life. But recently she’s learned that her unborn baby may suffer from a serious birth defect. The tests are inconclusive; still, her doctors have recommended that she terminate the pregnancy. She must now decide whether to follow their advice without ever knowing whether her baby would have been born healthy – and thus give up what might be her last chance to be a biological mother. If she decides not to have the baby, will her loss be easier for her than mine is for me? I, after all, have six wonderful children and two incredible grandchildren. Am I better or worse off than someone like her?
Closer to home, my sister Ruth’s wonderful, wonderful husband Jerry died of cancer almost eight years ago. She’s sometimes said to me that it would have been worse to lose her son. But Daniel and I have gone together through our mourning; Ruth, by definition, has had no one to share her bereavement. Can anyone say that one of our losses is harder than the other’s?
I believe that going through our own inferno should help us better understand the private hell of others; it can even bring us closer to them. When we begin comparing and contrasting, we only increase our alienation.
In my original blog, as well as in my memoir, I described a support group I attended for people who lost loved ones to cancer. I started off thinking I’d be able to connect only with the group’s other bereaved parents. Only they would be able to understand me, I thought, because our loss was so much worse than anyone else’s. Twelve meetings later, I came away having received an incredible gift – the discovery that I’d been wrong. As I wrote then, “however unnatural it is to lose a child as opposed to a wife, a parent or a sister, I can [now] give support to – and receive support from – people who aren’t in exactly the same position that I am. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I am completely sincere when I say that, at least in this small way, I feel as if I’m rejoining the human race.”
I found an almost unbelievable example of this empathic gift in my friend Charlotte’s mother, whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago just before Charlotte got married. Iboya (“Ibi” to the many who know and love her), who is now ninety, survived the concentration camps; no more need be said, I think, about the intensity of her personal traumas. Despite her many serious physical challenges, she vigorously encouraged her daughter to move to Israel in order to marry (she herself has perforce remained in Canada, where Charlotte travels to be with her every few months). I connected immediately with this open, loving and caring woman.
During the course of our conversation, she elicited from me the fact that I’d lost a daughter. Her already gentle face and manner softened even more as she said, “Oh, my dear. That’s the worst thing that could happen to a person.”
I drew back, stunned. “How can you say that?” I stammered. “You…but you were in Auschwitz!”
“Yes,” she said, waving one hand dismissively, as if shooing away the thought, “but that doesn’t take away even a little bit from what you’ve been through.”
I believe that Ibi’s capacity to truly see others is a central component of her resilience; it has played a great part in enabling her build a life full of strength and love despite the truly incomparable horrors she went through.
When we, like Ibi, can leave contrast, comparison, and competition aside, and relate to every individual’s bereavement, trauma, or tragedy purely on its own terms, we are one step closer to healing from our own.