The hierarchy of grief is a real thing – and it makes people very uncomfortable.
At this time some years ago, I was reeling from the death of my friend and long-time editor. She’s been on my mind so much through the last year, especially with my new book out in the world. She was such a big part of my life in the years after Matt died. We spent a lot of time discussing writing, grief, illness, and how much words matter. I miss my friend.
I am on the periphery of the collective grief around her death. We were good friends. I miss her terribly. It’s also true that my daily life didn’t really change after her death. Her husband and son, her parents and family members, the friends who were with her every single day as she tried to get well again – for them, the hole she left is constant.
My grief isn’t like theirs.
This is such delicate territory. When we talk about the hierarchy of grief, lots of people feel defensive. It turns into an emotional battleground – which person is most affected by death? Whose pain is worse? We have such a gag order on talking about grief and loss, everyone has a backlog. We read everything as a declaration that our grief isn’t valid.
I think it’s okay to talk about grief being different for different people. I think it’s okay to say that my grief is real and valid and gets to exist without being questioned, at the same time I know that my loss is not the same as my friend’s husband’s, nor their child’s. That some are more affected than others doesn’t need to disqualify grief for those on the periphery.
The hierarchy of grief is real - and that's okay. Every grief is valid. Click To Tweet
All of this reminds me of a post I wrote awhile back, when wildfires were burning throughout Oregon: for some, the death of one person changes the entire world, entirely and permanently. For others, that death changes the world in some ways, inhibits their daily actions for a time, leaves holes in parts of life. Everything versus some-things. Not better, not worse, but absolutely different.
I can miss my friend. I can wish with everything I have that she was still here. And I can go back to my daily life, carrying her differently than others might, at this close of the second year of grief.
It’s not a contest, it’s the truth: sometimes we are the epicenter, and sometimes we are further afield, where waves wash up on shore more gently, more occasionally. Still waves. Just… different.
How about you? Have you experienced a grief-hierarchy? Have you been on either end of this spectrum: at the direct center of loss, where not one part of life is untouched, and been confused or annoyed at other peoples’ grief? Have you been outside of the center and felt excluded or dismissed? Let us know in the comments
“We have such a gag order on talking about grief and loss, everyone has a backlog.” And I will never, ever “catch up”. This is so sad, which is why Refuge in Grief is such an important place in our world.
Megan I love this. Having lost my best friend and business partner almost 2 years ago, the hole was and is huge. Yet, her husband always “won” in the grief hierarchy. Initially there was some subtle sandpapering between us about this, although not spoken. I knew it was important that he win, even if inside of me I knew he didn’t get my loss in the same way.
I feel this today in the reverse. I am aware that in other contexts, people who were friends with Michelle see me at the top of the hierarchy – because of our closeness, so their grief is “less” because of it.
Sometimes I am righteous about it, “my grief IS the worst/most, no one else can possibly understand, your grief means nothing compared to mine”…which is both true and not true. Grief is grief, and it’s different. The righteousness isn’t very helpful :-).
Not better or worse, just different. There’s no winning in grief. And being sensitive to who’s in or close to the epicenter is REALLY helpful, while also remembering that many might miss and grieve someone in profound ways…
My boyfriend’s mom recently died. He is an only child and was devastated. I kicked into high gear by doing a lot of the things a daughter would do (planning her final arrangements, making decisions, getting my boyfriend and his dad the right help, etc…). I became an “incident commander”, a term we use in the emergency management profession! I was struck by the number of people who didn’t understand that stuff takes time and energy (not to mention that I’d lost someone I loved, too), just because I was “the girlfriend” instead of a wife or daughter. I didn’t ask for anything more than a few days off work to plan and attend her memorial service, but there was a real perception even that was a bit unreasonable. Just for context, I hardly ever take time off and have literally months of it available. I was even asked how long I’d been dating my boyfriend. WTF!
Fast forward two months, and it’s still me who is struggling to support a grieving boyfriend (including countering the endless stupid platitudes that make him feel much worse) and keeping my own sanity. We’re coping and slowly finding at least a few paths out of the fog, which led me here thank goodness. But it’s shocking how so many people revert back to 50’s era stereotypes to judge whether a griever is deserving or underserving of any time and space to grieve.
Nancie Thomas says
I am the epicenter, every moment of every day changed utterly by the loss of my beloved Jim on July 28 at the age of 54, completely unexpectedly (I was on my way to the hospital to bring him home after orthopedic surgery). I try to include others in my epicenter – our teenage sons but they grieve very differently from me, his parents (who, in their words, have compartmentalized and as long as they don’t think about it are “fine” and won’t talk about him) – but it is a very lonely place. Realizing I’ve lost not just Jim (as if that weren’t enough), but Jim&me, an amazing team, partners for life only life was supposed to be so much longer than this, Jim&Me&ourBoys, a family that just loved being together and having adventures – as well as the incredible person he was to the community at large. I am the last surviving member of our culture of two, the last speaker of our own private language, an identity I never wanted or imagined I would have. I appreciate the support of some wonderful friends and the community at large that Jim touched and have tried to be sensitive to others’ different was of grieving, but also know that I am alone at the bottom of this bomb crater that is now my life.
” I am the last surviving member of our culture of two, the last speaker of our own private language, an identity I never wanted or imagined I would have. I appreciate the support of some wonderful friends and the community at large that Jim touched and have tried to be sensitive to others’ different was of grieving, but also know that I am alone at the bottom of this bomb crater that is now my life.”
Thank. You. I’m 24 and I lost my would-be fiance about a month ago, also tragically and unexpectedly. If i hear “I can’t imagine what you must be going through” one more time I could scream. They’re right. They can’t imagine. I can’t even imagine. And everyone has been so great and trying so hard to help me but they just can’t and I’m trying so hard to let them help me. But you just explained exactly how I feel. We had our own language and our own way of being and he was the ONLY person to ever really understand me. It’s nice (in a horrible way) to know that other people have “lost what I lost” and to know that there ARE people who understand what I’m going through. Trying to keep our “culture” going by myself is gut-wrenching at best. I only hope that you have found ways to cope and that you are doing better.
I am so sorry for your loss. My husband Andrew died from stage 4 colon cancer on July 28 too. I am the epicenter too, as is our daughter.
What is tricky is when people are in the same circle in the circle theory, or think they are in the same circle. Widows and inlaws, for instance. Or siblings. In my case, my spouse’s siblings and parents felt that they were in the middle of the grief circle and they withdrew to a grief island. But I felt like our preschool girl was in the center, and we both needed the family who was not there but they said “you lost your husband but we lost our son”. In the end I decided that pain is pain, and some people in pain cannot conceive of the suffering of others. Sometimes putting grief in a hierarchy causes more pain. Now I think a constructive way to frame it is by needs. After a death, there is a circle of NEED. Who’s world changed the most as the result of the death? Who needs the most help?
Krista Imperiale says
I love this! Thank you
I’ve probably said the wrong things to grieving people in the past even though it was well meaning. After losing my beloved grandson 20 months ago I’ve learned so very much. Platitudes do NOT work!! I vow to never ever try to talk anyone out of grief or try to cheer them up. I’m astounded at the things some of my friends have said to me in the past 20 months. And I thought I knew these people. I thought they loved and cared for me!!! The most hurtful was “You need to think about all the other people who have gone through the same thing.” I’ve read so many books on grief but Megan Devine’s book It’s OK That You’re Not OK is by far one of the best if not THE best!! I’ve lost my parents, my only sibling and several close friends but for me the pain of losing a child is like no other. I’ve always thought that and now I know for sure. Thank you for a book that gives me permission to grieve and take care of myself with no guilt.
thank you Joyce! I’m glad to hear the book helps. If you haven’t yet, would you pop over to goodreads & amazon and leave your review?
Robert Flowers says
Bought “It’s OK….” the moment I saw it on the shelf. Outstanding! Read it twice, and highlighted the daylights out of it. I love it when a book gets to me that way. As a result, I feel more confident in turning down social invites. Plus, I make no apologies for how I’m feeling, just so other people won’t be uncomfortable. It has been 9 months since Gail died. At 6 months I had calls to move on & be happy. Got kicked out of a walking group because I was “too bereaved”. Many thanks for your help, your writing, for your terrific book.
thanks Robert! So glad the book found you. If you haven’t yet, would you pop over to goodreads & amazon and leave your review?
Lynda murtha says
“You can’t say that!” That’s what my husband’s best friend of 48 years said when I told him my husband was dying and if he wanted to come while he was still able to talk, he should come now. Others might not have, but in the moment I felt as if he was removing me from the hierarchy list of grievers altogether. . “YOU can’t say he’s dying!” He yelled at me. “I am going to tell him what you’ve said!” If I’d had time and a little compassion, I would have heard the hurt child in that statement. He was my husband’s best friend, his wife was mine. They had disappeared on us. I’d asked my husband if he wanted me to call them. He’d said I could try. We knew we were down to days. “HE ‘s dying!” I said. YOU can’t know that, he yelled back. I do know that! We yelled at each other, fighting for the highest place of knowing. Please come, I said.
They didn’t. They knew better. My husband died and these friends who were closer than brothers and sisters never came for the funeral or the celebration of life. I had to ask someone to take his place when it came to the eulogy.
He had to be right. I had to be wrong. We buried my husband without them. The god-parents of our children. My life has gone on without them. He wrote me an email basically what a best friend would have said in a loving eulogy. He ended in, How could this have happened? And I thought, because you always had to be right.
I know there are many ways of understanding this story but at the time I felt he was trying to be the only one who could decide when his friend was going to leave this world. Now I see a very scared man acting like a child who simply could not accept that his friend was indeed dying and there was nothing he could do about it. I also got a note from my best friend afterward. While her husband had laid out 48 years of friendship at work and play, his wife was only able to say, ‘He was the smartest man I ever met.”
I’ve gone way off track I think but grieving is grieving and I don’t know how to imagine these two grieving at all.
My older brother was that grieving man-child. I asked and asked but he never came to see my Dad. And then he did not come to the funeral. I’ll probably never see him again. I feel like they both died. 😢
Vicki Wood says
I lost my youngest of two sons to brain cancer. Obvious epitcenter, for myself, my older son and my husband. It has been interesting how some still try to compare. I don’t want to compare. I have no emotional bandwidth to be in competition about grief or honestly any other part life.
I lost my son to suicide. He put a gun in his mouth and ended his life. No note. Nothing compares to that other than another mother grieving her child to suicide. My world is forever changed, all my visions of my family of 5, my three boys. Nothing is the same. My faith and trust in God is gone. He was the one I relied on and he failed us.
Hillery Lester says
I’m on the outside of center. He was my Uncle, my dad’s brother but he was much more of a father to me than my father was ever able to be. My Uncle has two daughters who are no doubt the center, as they should be. Sometimes I feel so lost in my pain bc it isn’t classified as central. I don’t express the depth of my heartache bc I fear others judgement. My own father died 6 months after my Uncle. I am by all accounts central in that grief hierarchy but the pain and loss of my Uncle is far deeper. I feel like I have nowhere to go with my grief. Reading this helped me understand why I feel this way.
Sarah Busby says
I lost my 19 year old daughter to suicide this year. My husband and I share the epicenter of grief with our other daughter who is just one year younger. I know our families grieve for their niece, cousin, granddaughter, and girlfriend. The hardest part is feeling the responsibility to help comfort them through this very difficult time- all when WE need their special attention and care.
Maureen E Bernard says
During the period when my partner was sick and after he passed away, a friend of ours was going through a breakup with a person she had wasted many years of her life with. She knew he was a serial cheater and generally treated her terribly. She constantly compared our losses. Always saying that life was so unfair to us and we were both suffering. It was so hurtful and insulting to have her compare the end of her toxic relationship to the loss of my wonderful, loving partner. I still resent that she compared what we were (are) going through.
Your book has helped me so much. My dear husband of 39 years died 3 months ago. I have learned that my loss is mine, yours is yours. Yet we have compassion with each other. Hugs and tears comfort more than words. I have been blessed with both. Megan’s book contained both. She taught me how to grieve. Thank you.
thank you Mary! So glad the book found you. If you haven’t yet, would you pop over to Amazon and Goodreads to leave your review? Reviews help other folks know this book isn’t like most others, and it helps to keep the book showing up in search results so that other grieving people can find it. <3
Having lost my husband less than three years ago suddenly, my father to dementia last January, and now my oldest son suddenly in April, this is what I am learning about the hierarchy of grief…people are more afraid of you. How I grieve each of those three losses are so different from each other. It really all boils down to how close you are to the person on an emotional level. My husbands death still devastates me. Killed by a drunk driver. We were high school sweethearts only together for five years. We were so close. My father was 90, suffered from dementia and other health problems. He was a drinker and smoker. I knew and he knew his time was close. So we made sure each of us were at peace with our relationship just prior his passing. I did not feel deep sorrow but quiet joy and peace that he lived a good life to the end in spite of it all. My son’s death was accidental alcohol asphyxiation. But I saw him only a few months prior. He was suffering from the ravages of his alcoholism and drug abuse. His body and mind in poor shape. I grieve what could have been, but I also know we did not have a close relationship due to his addictions. I only feel deep sadness for him. I am sure I will feel more down the road, but as I am cleaning out his apartment, I am also glad that he is finally not suffering. (I do have serious anger issues with what alcohol does to damage friends and family members who do not use it) But all three of these deaths and how they affect me are so different. Like comparing apples to oranges to grapes. All fruit, but not even alike. Food for thought.
My nephew, my brother’s son, died by suicide on April 16. Obviously I’m not at the epicenter here, but still it has impacted me greatly. I still have nights where I get into bed, start replaying everything in my head, and have to get up and read my Bible. After his parents, I was probably the person to whom my nephew felt closest. I keep going over signs that were missed and I feel so guilty. Yet I’m on the periphery here. Everyone asks me how my brother and sister-in-law are doing; no one asks me hoe I am doing. I loved my nephew very much, and my grief is deep and ongoing. But peripheral.
The death of a loved one, whether friend or family, is painful. My mother died in my early 20’s and my dad died 11 yrs later. My life changed dramatically with both. I experienced yrs of sadness and memory loss. But at the time, I had small children and my husband, who all brought me comfort and support. Recently my husband died unexpectedly. He has been a part of my life all but my first 17 years. With his death, I have to navigate THIS grief alone. Every part of my life has changed. I live in a home we shared, once filled with conversations, laughter and companionship, that is now silent, empty and lonely. I had someone tell me that they believe a death of a child would be worse than the death of a spouse. All I can say to that is that this person has never experienced either. Both are horrific and life altering. I have not had a child die either and hope to never experience such loss. But, if it were to happen and my husband was still alive, I cannot imagine that we would not be the support each other would need to carry each other alongside our grief. There is a difference between the two.
Louise W says
Hi! I HEAR YOU!! I have a much altered husband after hos beautiful daughter died age 15…noone acknowledges my experienxe…”your just tge step mother”… yet I was left to carry the load ALONE as my poor husband was numb for months. Make sure to ask clearly for support from others…feels impossible…but it’s worse being like me and being left forgotten and people I thought cared not coming near and leaving me to cope ALONE, unsupported… conviniently assuming I was managing. (Like we have a choice!!)
K B says
I lost my mom five days before Christmas. I’d lost my dad in February 2017, and so was my mom’s sole caregiver since then. She was my world. The two of us lived together until she was too sick to stay out of the hospital. I spent the holidays with two of her sisters, who at times seemed more concerned with the death of their cat in October. My life is shattered, I have no money to live on and have been going to food banks. Mom left without a will or life insurance and left behind tons of medical bills. It’s been just over nine weeks, and my aunts think I should have moved on by now…sold all her belongings and found a new job. They don’t get that I was at the epicenter and can’t sleep through the night because I wake at 2am sobbing every night. They just weren’t that close to her.
My heart goes out to all the people here who have shared their stories. I am coming from a different perspective and found this site while searching for hierarchy of grief. I am a survivor of 9/11 and, though we lost several colleagues that day, I didn’t lose anyone close to me nor was I injured that day. However, when I tried to connect with people who did lose a loved one, they treat me with a hint of disdain. It’s unspoken and subtle but I feel that since I didn’t have a direct loss that my grief/PTSD/sadness doesn’t measure up. Do you address this type of hierarchy in your book? I’m also very interested in your writing program. I’ve been working on a memoir around my 9/11 experience and would love some guidance.
Brenda Dixon-Smith says
I too found this site while researching the hierarchy of grief after listening to a CNN interview of Columbine and Parkland survivors. They discussed the hierarchy both groups faced re “well you weren’t in the building”.
My husband of 32 years suffered what initially was diagnosed as a heart attack while we were watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Later as his condition continued to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, he really did have a heart attack. He continued to go downhill and on the 21st I agreed to turn off the life support. However, in my mind he really died on 9/11 as that was the last day he was conscious. During those 10 days, the TVs in ICU were pretty much 24/7 about the various aspects of 9/11, as was expected. Eventually flight restrictions were lifted and our 4 children and my husband’s sister were able to fly to Honolulu. That’s the background. My point for this discussion is that not only was I not grieving like everyone else did about 9/11, I was criticized for not feeling that the victims of 9/11 were “more special” than my husband. Even more poignant was the local rape and killing of a 6 year old at the hands of her mentally challenged next-door neighbor boy. I felt worse for both of those families than for the 9/11 victims. Even today, I still can’t wrap my head around the notion that the 9/11 deaths were somehow more special than the deaths that happened almost every day in the ICU or that of the 6 year old.
Katie Gholson says
I have a friend who every time I say something about missing my husband says something along the lines of how loved he was by so many and that she misses him just as much .. WTF ?? he was my HUSBAND – you were the friend of his WIFE .. not HIS friend .. I just want to choke her !! Honestly, I avoid her as much as possible.
I was told at the funeral by someone.”I know how you feel,I’ve just been through that” I didn’t react to it as I was unable to.I would now but as nicely as I am able.
Having lost a very close family member very suddenly and very young due to illness and a very close friend to a sudden violent death caused by another person (who will never be held accountable), I feel myself insisting on a hierarchy of losses. The sudden and premature loss that can be blamed on a person who will never pay for it is worse than the sudden premature loss that is because of bad luck (illness), which is in turn worse than other losses of people to the same illness who were older or who lived long enough to say goodbye. Sometimes if someone is being very expressive about grieving someone who died at a ripe old age, gently, I admit to scoffing internally that they think they have it bad but they know nothing of what it’s like to combine grief with the trauma of losing someone to murder or suicide, or even to lose someone really young rather than in their 80s and up. Not very generous of me, but I do have a hard time with people weeping and emoting profusely at losses that seem so much easier than the worst ones I have had to absorb. I have lost older people in gentle ways too, and however much I miss those people, their deaths are so so so much easier, and even the very premature and sudden death of someone who was ill for a week was so so so much easier than the premature and sudden death by violence that will never be punished or even acknowledged.
I don’t know how the loss of someone to dementia fits in the hierarchy. The loss of function is premature and sudden, but it’s bad luck, not someone’s fault, and there are moments to connect and say goodbye amidst the other moments of confusion when nobody’s home. I think this one is gentler but the long duration may make the overall cumulative suffering worse.
I lost my mom while I was in the final trimester of my first child. I went through becoming a first time mom, getting married, losing my job, becoming a single parent and now a divorce without my mom. My brother thinks I shouldn’t be struggling as much as I am with the loss of our mom. Meanwhile he has never had a child and is in a stable relationship in a totally different state. Somehow he thinks I should be over grieving for our mom or that it shouldn’t be hard and he’s totally unable to see how mothering a child constantly brings my mom up. It’s caused a huge rift because he is unable to access any empathy for my pain and struggle which has made me feel more alienated from him.
Antoinette Irwin says
Epicenter! Yes, that is where I was when my husband of 30 years died from cancer, cancer complicated by his advancing Alzheimer’s disease. I visualize myself standing on the point of a pin, the epicenter, and all around, everything falls away. Everything. And everyone else. I am that alone.
I had been his wife and his caregiver. It was a long path, a long journey. Years of love went into that. Early on I decided that it was important to be kind to him, to keep him at home. I had not anticipated the viciousness from two of his three adult children with his first wife. She had died from throat cancer. Those two, a woman two years younger than me and a man over forty. They harbored such jealousy!
Neither was in a position to take over caring for him, and they were about to try to sabotage us. The son repeatedly spoke to his dad wanting him to agree to go to a nursing home. He did not want that! The conversations left him so confused and frightened that I finally quit my lifeline to the community, membership in a community orchestra.
From my pinpoint I now see that those two wanted him to be rendered helpless and to drive me away. They underestimated the strength of our relationship. They wanted to force me out, to rewrite his will, to annihilate us. They continued their machinations after his death, dogging me for personal objects and interfering in the funeral.
The morning of the funeral, planned at our church, the daughter called trying to bully me into changing the plan to have a meal at church put on by fellow church members. She wanted chaos; she and her brother with their families were agonizingly rude and cruel to me. They went way too far with this cruelty, and they blamed me.
They tried to send me to the periphery, to unseat me from the place I had in my late hub’s life. My own children stood firm with me. They did add to my misery daily for a long time, but I stood strong.
Kath Manning says
I don’t really understand why the epicentre is that important. I have just lost my partner who I loved very much. But he was very important to other people too. And for some who had less in their lives, or greater stresses, or just other differences, they might feel it as or more keenly. That’s ok. We’re all grieving because we lost someone amazing. We all knew that person differently and that can be confusing, to realise that not everyone knew the same bits of him, but my memories and my grief are mine and anyone else’s is none of my business. It is not for me to tell anyone else what they are feeling and whether it is worse or better than what I am feeling, how do I know, I am not in their heads? If someone said to me that they are grieving more than me I would find it odd, I might be angry that they are making assumptions about my grief. But I wouldn’t deny them their grief or make any assumptions about the depth of grief. The only thing that might be difficult is that lots of people want to grieve with me, share stories etc, and that might get exhausting, I may need to set boundaries where I don’t become responsible for supporting them all in their grief when I have my own to tend to. But I don’t deny anyone the right to their grief, their grief is what it is. It is a wonderful that so many others saw how wonderful he was and loved him so much too, it really helps me seeing that. Even though each of us has grief that is as unique, as we are all uniwye and our relationships with my partner were too. All his family and close friends contributed to his funeral, noone was allowed to take over, it was important that everyone felt part of it. I think I was probably given the status of epicentre and given final say on things, reflecting my relationship with my partner in life and I would have felt very angry if someone else had taken over. Perhaps that enabled me the grace to let things go if they were obviously very important to other people and their grief. That would have absolutely have been what my partner would have done and he taught me so much.