The Trouble With Comparisons in Grief

As the pandemic brought India and the world to a standstill, a collective sense of loss and  disillusionment took over the world. Humanity underwent a historic shift. From healthcare, hospitality, and aviation to frontline work, politics and entertainment – 2020 upended life as we knew it. And, it introduced a particular kind of pain. I call it ‘pandemic grief’.

For months, the world has felt like the emotional equivalent of a car with a cracked windshield. Many people are still stimming through everyday life, but one sudden knock is bound to shatter them. The number of coronavirus cases is at an all-time high, the number of deaths has soared well above it was ever before, and now we have the new variants to worry about. They say that if you have not yet lost a relative, you’re one of the lucky ones. Count your blessings. But, at its core, grief is a reaction to a change that you didn’t expect. Even without the loss of a family member or a friend in the pandemic, you will experience it. It could be the disappointment of missing in-person experiences or the loss of a long-time job. In the hierarchy of human suffering during the pandemic, a canceled vacation, a lost goal or missing out on precious time with family may rank low, but all loss needs to be acknowledged and grieved.

“I don’t have the right to grieve.”

“I can’t complain about my loss because people around me have it worse.”

These are reportedly some of the most frequently thought/said sentences of this year. The reason remains alien to me. Your grief is your grief. It’s not comparable. A friend of mine was forced to cancel her dream wedding last year. She got married over a virtual zoom meeting instead of the elaborate, all-paid for event. A year into the marriage, on the day of her first anniversary, she is mourning the loss of this beautiful wedding. There is no designated ritual for it, since it’s not the loss of a person. But, it’s a sadness in its own right.

A man I follow on the internet, had been preparing for the expansion of a disruptive, world-renowned company for the past few years. He had his eyes set on a well-planned, almost-executed, goal. And then, COVID-19 arrived. He and his team hit a roadblock. The goal remains unfulfilled. The loss of invested time and energy makes him pensive. It is disappointing, and fairly so. The problem with comparisons in grief is if you win, you lose.

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Grief is as unique as a thumbprint. Everyone experiences it differently, for different reasons. However, understanding its different stages is a start. There’s denial, which we said a lot of early on in: “This virus won’t affect me.” There’s anger: “This is making my stay home, far removed from my daily tasks.” There’s bargaining: “Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?” There’s sadness: “I don’t know when this will end.” And finally there’s acceptance. “This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”

Acceptance, is where the power lies.

But is that enough? This pandemic’s open-endedness is particularly unsettling. It was a temporary state of being. Then, it prolonged. It became a way of life. We saw progress, a vaccine was introduced. And now, it’s happening again. Only this time, it’s deadlier. 

I lost my 24-year old cousin to the pandemic this year. He was a vivacious, generous and ambitious young man, whose memory will eat at me for as long as I can imagine. The grief is unlike anything I have experienced. Especially, coupled with the other things that lend to my sadness. A book that I poured my soul into, is experiencing stalled publication. All the progress I made at the gym has been reversed. The atmosphere at home feels tense. The grief of a lost life is, of course, greater and more permanent. But, that does not invalidate the other feelings I feel. 

Acceptance has its expiry too, and I’m afraid that we’ve reached it. How does one accept the collapse of their healthcare system? The loss of another important year? The complete abandonment of normalcy? It takes courage, and then some. While it’s difficult to find a one-size-fits-all manual for managing grief, here’s some advice I found helpful when applied to myself: experience your emotions – both painful and happy. Don’t minimise your grief. Most importantly, recognise/acknowledge your own coping mechanism instead of trying to imbibe ones you read elsewhere. 

Divita Aggarwal is a published author and Marketing professional based in Delhi.

Featured image credit: S. Hermann & F. Richter/Pixabay