Comparative Grief and Comparative Loss

On Facebook recently, Alina’s mom, Marie, wrote a long, transparent, heartbreaking post about some of the difficult things she has had to walk through in her life. (Alina was one of Jason’s best friends and died in the accident with him.) She talked about how difficult this time of year is because her oldest son, Andrew, died on November 16, 1991 at the age of 15 in a car accident. Alina’s birthday follows close behind on December 12th. She posted quite a few pictures of their family, and received a lot of positive responses, supportive comments, and outpourings of love. Without a doubt, Marie deserves all of the support and compassion she could ever receive. I have no problem with that at all.

But, in all honesty, it brought up feelings that I have had to deal with over the years – comparative grief and comparative loss.

Because we were all part of the same homeschool group and the kids had a lot of friends in common, a lot of people knew about the death of Andrew and knew his family at that time. The Christianson’s had been a part of this particular homeschool group at the time Andrew died, while we had joined the group in 1995. Logically, a lot of support from that group when Alina died went to Alina’s parents and sister. Don’t misunderstand me – I am so very glad Marie has had support. Even Marie, years later when we went back to Seattle for a wedding, told me how much support she had when Alina died compared to when Andrew died. She told me she had support from local family, the homeschool group, her church, and friends. She also told me how true it is that, over the years, your address book changes as people get tired of your grief.

I feel like I’ve talked ad nauseum about how alone we were after Jason’s death. It’s a fact, and I do not exaggerate. We had no geographically close family for support and almost non-existent support from anyone else. To say that we were so alone and it was so difficult is a gross understatement. It has changed us forever – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

But, one of the things I’d like to discuss is this thing about comparative grief and comparative loss. Our family was treated as if our loss was the “lesser loss.” It wasn’t just the homeschool people rallying more (after the initial dropping off of meals) around Alina’s family and not ours. It was everywhere.

I went to a Compassionate Friends group meeting for moms, trying to find some answers and support. They asked me if I wanted to introduce myself. When I said that our son and his best friend had died a few weeks ago, one gal told me, “Oh, you’re just a baby [in the grief process].” It felt very dismissive. But, then when I started talking about the accident, one gal interrupted and said that she had read the newspaper articles about the accident. Everyone started discussing how awful it was that Alina’s dad, Brian, had been on site when the accident happened, how awful it was that they had lost an earlier child in a car accident, that they had now experienced the death of a second child, on and on they went about how horrible it was for Alina’s family. All of a sudden, I was invisible, and my loss and my grief no longer “counted.” Comparatively speaking, the death of Jason, our grief, the loss of our son was the LESSER TRAGEDY. After discussing at length how horrible it must be for the Christianson’s, the discussion moved on to other things. My grief and loss no longer mattered, by comparison. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and never went back.

The newspapers, intentionally or not, really jumped on the comparative bandwagon. They went for the sensationalism. Most articles talked about Brian witnessing the accident and about the Christianson’s tragedy of the second death of a child. One article, in particular, was so hard to read. Where the author talked about the accident and called both Brian and Alina by their first names, Jason was addressed as “Carney” through nearly the whole thing.

The Bothell man continued on to Carney’s house but found neither Carney nor Alina, nor were they at Alina’s home.

About an hour later he learned there were two in the damaged vehicle and both had been killed: his daughter and Carney. The driver of the other car left the accident scene before police arrived.

After the article came out in the paper, Marie called me to apologize for the tone of the article. Even coverage of the sentencing of the young man who killed Jason and Alina focused on the Christianson’s greater tragedy. It only briefly mentioned us or Jason. When we walked into the courtroom for the sentencing, the first two rows had been set aside for the Christianson family.

I remember being given books written about the death of a child or people telling me about others who lost loved ones, as if I should count my blessings and be thankful I hadn’t suffered a greater loss.

Other than my post about the baby we lost and some of the things we have walked through following Jason’s death, I have chosen not to discuss some of the other very difficult things we have walked through in our lives. The thing is, we don’t have the right to judge someone else’s loss and deem whose loss is greater and whose loss is lesser. We have no idea what they have had to walk through or how deeply the loss affects them. We don’t have the right to dismiss their loss as the “lesser tragedy.”

It is a tragedy – and adds to the already horrible tragedy – to make someone feel like their loss, their grief doesn’t matter. We do not have the right to invalidate someone else’s loss or grief. I don’t care whether it’s the death of Elvis or the people who died on 9/11 or the death of our precious Jason and his best friend Alina on 3/3/02. The loss of life is the loss of a life, and the people who dearly loved the ones who died DO NOT comparatively walk through lesser grief or comparatively feel a lesser loss. We invalidate the grief and loss by making the griever feel like they have experienced a lesser loss or that someone else has suffered a greater tragedy. It’s not fair. And it needs to stop. Everyone who suffered a deep loss needs to feel like their loss and their grief matters.

© 2017 Rebecca R. Carney


21 thoughts on “Comparative Grief and Comparative Loss

  1. Thank you for this. There is no way to compare one’s grief over a loss to another’s. There is no ‘lesser tragedy’ or ‘greater tragedy’. I have never been in competition with anyone’s grief, nor, I suspect, have you. Every loss diminishes the entire world, there is no way to compare mine to yours. There is only loss. Peace to you and yours.

  2. So beautifully put Becky. I’m so sorry your experience with Compassionate Friends was not helpful. No one should have spoken or told other stories while you were talking. It is my darling Danielle’s birthday today, but every day is hard. I love reading your posts..they reflect how I feel and are comforting. Much love, Janice xx

  3. I’m so sorry your tragedy was treated as lesser than. That is completely unfair and I’m sure only compounded your pain. How painful to have had to be subjected to that sort of coverage. You make such great points in your blog post. I’m so sorry that so many have compared your loss only intensifying the isolation.

  4. The tragic loss of your son was not validated by those we look to for comfort. How isolating and painful that must have been for you and your family. Time has not erased that deep wound the memory has left you to carry. Losing your son was such a tragedy and I am sorry your community let you down.

    • Hi, Dee. I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you are. Thank you for commenting. It’s good to hear from you.

      You know, it surprises me at times how deep and raw some of those wounds still are. I have worked hard on forgiveness over the years, especially when memories or situations come up that expose the wounds. I don’t dwell on it all the time (I don’t think of them, not really at all, usually), but at times an event brings something to the forefront of my memory and it feels a fresh ache once again.

      I think I could have withstood the isolation and everything better if it had just affected me. It was especially difficult to watch our daughter, at 17, go through everything she had to walk through after Jason died. It just broke my heart. They were so close, and his death and the aftermath affected her deeply. While other high school seniors were planning for prom and picking out dresses, she was with us helping pick out a casket for her brother and helping choose photos and music for his memorial service. She went to the homeschool senior class graduation planning meeting a few weeks after Jason’s death, and absolutely no one even talked to her, not even to say hello. I realize they were just kids and they didn’t know what to say, but it was so heartbreaking to have to search for my daughter after the meeting and find her upstairs sobbing because people she considered years-long good friends totally ignored her, all because of something she didn’t do and totally beyond her control. I think about that time and I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how she did it. There are some people I’m not sure I have entirely forgiven because of they way they treated her after Jason died. I really try and will keep on trying, but it’s hard, especially when no one ever says they are sorry. They just go on with their lives.

      I’m sure some people, if they really thought about it, would feel bad about how they treated us at that time. I did have one gal send me a letter, months after Jason’s death, saying she was sorry and explaining why it was so hard for her and why she hadn’t been able to do anything or be around me. Not that she ever did come around me, ever, not even after she wrote the letter. Another friend apologized for disappearing, but then never did “appear” after that.

      People expect the grief and pain to go away over time, but I am not sure it ever does entirely. Even the wounds that have “healed” have left scars, I’m sorry to say.

      Hugs to you, Dee.


      • Oh Becky, I just saw this comment. I want to scream and cry for your daughter as she experienced such a rude awakening of how we as a society can be so ignorant. Surely, if they didnt know what to say about Jason’s death, I do not excuse easily that no one could muster up a hug or at least a hello. When someone hurts my child, it breaks my heart more than if someone hurt me. As far as those two friends who reached out later to you, well I find that interaction confusing. Time does not heal all wounds. At least time hasnt healed mine.

        Hugs to you, too.

  5. I am so sorry that this has been your experience. It’s terribly fonurtunate that we live in a society that insists on quantifying everything. Sadly that translates into experiences like yours. The flip side is that those of us who have suffered child loss can be just as quick to line up others’ painful life experiences as “less than” our own. One of the things I’m learning on this journey is that the best way to embrace and encourage a hurting heart is to listen well, love hard and leave off any kind of comparisone. I pray that the Lord will speak courage to your heart today and especially on into this holday season. ❤

    • Your comments got me thinking, Melanie, so I had to add one more thing. We hear that there is no greater pain than the death of a child, and I tend to agree with that. As Dwight Eiseinhower said, “There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”

      But, I really appreciate your cautionary word-to-the-wise to bereaved parents to not “line up others’ painful life experiences as ‘less than’ our own.” I will admit to struggling to understand someone equating the death of their dog to the death of my son, but I, too, am trying to learn to respond to all hurting hearts with compassion and not comparison.

      • I sure didn’t mean to imply that there was not a certain hierarchy of loss. You are absolutely right-losing a dog is totally non comparative to losing a child! I’m just trying hard to walk as gently as possible through this broken life, aware that many, many people are also broken and hurting-even if not in the same way or to the same degree as me ❤

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