I so enjoyed watching the US Open this year. Something about bearing witness to athletes reaching so far within themselves to break barriers and out perform previous competitions is energizing, and inspiring.
Not so enjoyable, is bearing witness to a “Grief Match.” I don’t see it a lot, but when it happens I find it super painful. When two people start competing for “victim victory” no one wins.
It starts with the terribly rude habit we all have, of listening to someone, not so much to be present to them, but to formulate our response, before we even hear the person out. For example: One person describes something terrible (ie “A colleague’s husband died suddenly from a heart attack”) and the other person, instead of really receiving that news, has a ready “trump” response: “Yeah, a friend of mine’s brother was just diagnosed with ALS.”
There are so many issues to take up with this dynamic, one I believe we could all improve upon. When I hear two or more people in a grief match, I want to be the referee and say “Out! Foul! Wait, before returning that zinger of a serve, to out-shock the others, maybe a response like ‘Wow, I am sorry to hear that, what is that like?” would bring more kindness? After all, we are NOT at the US Open and there are no cash prizes for having a claim on the worst news of the moment.
It reminds me of a kind of grief match I learned about after Alexis died. I was reading a book authored by parents who’d lost two children: one from disease and one from sudden auto accident. I remember the Mom saying (something like) “I can help those of you who think losing a child to illness is somehow more palatable than a sudden death, by telling you I have experienced both, and I can confirm they are equally unconscionable.”
Why do we feel the need to compete on AND off the court? Competition is a beautiful thing, but not when it comes to personal tragedy. Do we not receive enough empathy or compassion that we have to literally trade our sorrow stories to meet those needs? Are we unable or unwilling to provide these to ourselves, instead of relying on external validation that yes, this (fill-in-the-blank) is in fact a gut wrenching situation?
Normalizing loss, by sharing stories is one of the most effective ways I have learned to heal from the deaths of my children. Listening, and sharing, and listening and sharing may be more of a “healing” match (these are much more comforting to be part of) but not when sharing becomes a “one-up-ing” volley of tragedies.
Next time someone confides in you about something painful, whether in a group or just two of you, try to pause before responding with your own painful story. Even a strategy like making a habit not to interrupt anyone while they are speaking, can allow the other person speaking to truly express themselves. Be generous in your stewardship of their courage to share. Acknowledge their pain. And by all means, do not get into a grief match.
And we must include ourselves in this commitment. If we need more self-compassion (as most of us do) let’s work on that too.