We tend to think of grief as intensely private. But within the wider cultural context, grief is validated or censored – both implicitly and explicitly. I’ve heard someone speak with disgust of a woman who has had an abortion in light of her own experience of miscarriage. The grief arising from the circumstances of abortion, discredited because there are women whose longed-for babies die during pregnancy. For the woman who has undergone abortion, she might internalise this as guilt and thereby deny herself the right to grieve. In the subtle terrain of the heart, guilt and grief often walk hand in hand.
We imbibe the values of the culture in which we are raised without noticing how they shape our inner landscape. For example, it doesn't sound outrageous to say, 'there's nothing worse than ...'. Fill in the blank. There's nothing worse than losing a child? Being raped? Having your home and everything in it burn to the ground?
A comparative adjective sets the stage for comparison. How could the death of a child be worse to a rape survivor than the rape she has experienced? To a parent whose child has died, losing their home might feel like a favourable swap, but to the bereft family standing in front of the remnants of all that they have known, the comparison is meaningless.
In the poignant and heartbreaking film, Trees of Peace, four women are trapped in a basement during the Rwandan genocide. Annick, a Hutu moderate, Peyton, an American volunteer at the school, Jeannette a Hutu nun and Mutesi, a Tutsi who has fled the destruction of her home and family. As the unspeakable happens in front of the tiny window of their hiding place, the tension between the women rises. Annick, five months pregnant, is harried by Mutesi about what kind of man her child will become after Hutu militia rape and slaughter a Tutsi woman on the street outside their hiding place. The visceral terror of what they have witnessed in the murder of a woman they bought bread from only a few weeks before, by a boy who sings in the choir, is palpable. In the real world, it was violence so out in the open that the horror of it reached TV screens around the world. However, the pain and suffering the women reveal to each other in their tiny locked room is not out in the open – it is hidden in each of these women’s hearts, just as we hide our losses behind the facade of who we present to the world.
“Enough!” Annick says to Mutesi, “You think because you are so smart, because you see through people it gives you the right to be so cruel. I would ask you why you pick us apart but it is already so obvious…
"You were violated in the worst ways but that does not give you the right to violate everybody else so please leave us alone.”
Peyton, who attempted suicide after the death of her brother in a car accident that occurred when she was drunk driving, lashes out at Jeanette who judges suicide to be the worst possible sin.
“You told me once that you became a nun because your father was a priest but he was a rapist.”
It turns out that Jeanette’s mother died by suicide after years of abuse at the hands of Jeanette’s father who sexually assaulted his daughter too.
“Satisfied or shall we suffer more?” Annick asks.
“You don’t know suffering.” Mutesi responds, “Imagine being forgotten because of what you have suffered. Because no one knows what to say, they look through you as if you are not there.”
Mutesi’s uncle sexually molested her throughout her childhood, and while her family knew, no-one intervened to protect her.
“Four babies have lived and died inside me. Does that give me the right to be cruel like you?” Annick asks
The experiences these women reveal to each other are not out of the ordinary. Childhood sexual abuse, teenage disenchantment and alcohol fuelled accidents, car crashes, infertility, miscarriage, suicide, domestic violence, violations by people in positions of trust are things that are happening all around us – even though we are unlikely to know it for the most part.
This snippet of dialogue is important because it reveals the ways in which we get tangled up in our own minds trying to decide whose suffering is worse, and thereby who has the right to grieve, judge or censor others.
I recognise this in myself. When I met the man I thought of as my soulmate for a heady time, I was entranced by his story of how he had survived the famines in Ethiopia as a young boy and how his mother had sold him as a slave. Nothing I had experienced in my middle-class white upbringing trumped the devastation of slavery and famine. I felt guilty whenever I was down about something. My inner turmoil, that arose from the religious teachings of my childhood, about being inherently bad and destined for eternal hellfire without exactly the right prayer, was paltry in the face of his real, tangible suffering of such cruel magnitude. I berated myself for being self-indulgent, cosseted, ridiculous even – adding more guilt to what was already there!
The history of profound trauma played out in my soul mate's adult life as abusive behaviour, and my reluctance to take care of my own experience of the loss of safety I had encountered in the religious framework of my childhood, meant I didn’t notice the loss of safety in my adulthood as it slipped away in this relationship.
In the event of an emergency in an aircraft, passengers are instructed to fit their own oxygen mask before attempting to help anyone else. This analogy is helpful here. Take care of your own broken heart first. I wish I had understood this when I was younger. There's no judgement in grief. The emotional intensity of grief is known only to the individual who has experienced the loss. Healing comes to each of us when we recognise the experience of grief and reach peace with the loss that gave rise to it. Tying ourselves in knots over who has suffered more, is an open door to more suffering. Guilt compounds the grief already hiding in the heart and perpetuates the cycle of loss and suffering. Denying the significance of an experience of loss to you because it appears less significant than another person’s loss, does nothing to salve the other person’s heart, it just makes us more complex and less able to make wise decisions.
Don't mistake what I'm saying here. To turn it around and say that all losses are equal – the experience of famine, slavery, the death of a mother and cruel abuse by a step-mother equals the discomfiture of poisonous theology in an otherwise comfortable, loving home. No! The point is that comparison is completely meaningless whichever way it is construed. The only place where loss is meaningfully measured is within the heart – in that sacred place discover for yourself the emotional intensity of the losses you have experienced and gently lay them to rest. No need to add guilt for not having suffered enough – that's a certain path towards more suffering that will necessarily hurt you, and in all likelihood, others too.
Suffering is suffering, and comparison of suffering is meaningless and dangerous. The right to grieve belongs to us all because suffering is part of the human condition. The magnitude of the losses of one person does not invalidate or disqualify the grief of another. We take care of each other more effectively when we take care of ourselves first.