Recently, a couple I know, lost their 11-year old son. As I wrote my sympathy card, I struggled a bit with the wording. I wanted them to know that I too had lost a child and that I knew that it was awful. But I wanted to be very careful not to compare or to say I knew exactly how they felt. I know from a fact that losing an infant is different from a miscarriage. I can surmise that losing an 11-year-old is different yet again. In fact I suspect that all losses, while they have some commonality, are different experiences in their own ways.
We tend to compare losses automatically. Sometimes, we're just trying to connect on a deeper level with someone. We hear about their loss and wonder how we can relate. After my third miscarriage,my boss said he understood if I was upset because his cat was sick and he'd been worried about that. I love my boss. He's a good guy. I love my own pets and understand worrying about them when they're ill. But there is no way to compare a sick pet with a miscarriage. Still, I understand that he was trying to be sympathetic. He searched his experiences for one that would demonstrate his understanding and that's what he could come up with.
Sometimes we compare because we think it will make us feel better somehow. A pregnancy was only so far along. A child was only a certain age. We can speculate endlessly how someone else's loss might be better or worse than our own. Still, we are never in someone else's head. We can have boundless sympathy and empathy yet we will never truly know what somebody else's loss feels like.
A recent article talked about the “jumpers” from 9/11. These were people who jumped from the Twin Towers to escape fire and smoke before the buildings collapsed. News agencies showed these pictures early in in their coverage of the tragedy, then stopped showing them. They were painful to watch. Moreover, families were offended and hurt. For many grieving families, the implication that their loved ones may have jumped implied a total loss of hope. A giving up.
Everyone wants to believe that in that in the face of calamity and disaster, they will behave with courage and dignity. But if your walls are collapsing and your floor is burning who is to know how any of us might behave? Sometimes we do lose hope. Sometimes we panic. Some things we manage with great aplomb. Others we can't manage at all.
Connecting with people is important. Sharing our stories has value. But comparing your circumstances to someone else's doesn't work. It won't make you feel better. It won't increase your empathy. It won't help other people feel better or more understood. Your collapsing walls and burning floor might be literal like a terrorist attack. They might also be figurative like a divorce, depression, an elderly parent with dementia, a miscarriage or losing an older child. Regardless of the circumstances, your reaction is unique and personal. It has many factors, some of which are likely completely beyond your control.