My Death Is Worse Than Yours

Robin Williams: like a "dear friend," or just another celebrity death in the news?

Robin Williams: like a “dear friend,” or just another celebrity death in the news?

Her child was stillborn. It’s a year since the death.

His grandmother died from dementia. It’s a year since the death.

Their teen was killed in a traffic accident. It’s a year since the death.

Children gather to honor a father’s birthday. It’s a year since the death.

She lays a Christmas wreath on her husband’s grave. It’s a year since the death.

Which death is the most difficult to death with? Which person, a year after a loved one has died, should be in “better shape” and “moved on” in their life?

How would you rank them? (Should you rank them?)

Unfortunately I think many folks—including me—rank the severity of another person’s situation. We do that with most of life: comparing jobs, homes, our child’s successes, the cars we drive, the vacations we take, and so forth. Advertising relentlessly reinforces comparison, from the new solar panels on the neighbor’s roof to the newest smartphone in a classmate’s hand. The person next to you or across the street or on the pharmaceutical commercial is better off than you. (Or, whew, is just a smidgen worse off than you!)

If we compare the things of life, why not compare the ways of death? Isn’t a young and vibrant teen dying in a traffic accident much, much worse than an old and feeble grandparent dying from dementia?

What if it was a single vehicle accident, and the nineteen-year-old got high—and it wasn’t the first time but one of multiple times of partying with alcohol and drugs—and later rode his motorcycle without a helmet . . . while sending a text? And so, at a blind turn, he roared off a rain-slicked road and smashed into a tree. (I could keep making this worse.) I’ve heard the perverse jokes whispered by hospital staff as they referred to motorcycles as “organ donation machines.” Wasn’t the death that stupid kid’s fault? Or maybe you would never ever think that way? You feel rotten for his parents . . . but for how long and with how much sympathy, once you learn more of the details?

What if the grandparent who died—old and feeble—was the one who raised the now mourning grandchild? No one had cared for that grandchild like the grandparent. What if, as years went by, roles were reversed and the youth once supported by the grandparent now unselfishly cared for him or her in the waning years? No one else in the family stepped forward and only that singular, loving grandchild was there to make a grandparent’s final days as safe and dignified as possible. (I could keep making this better.) Will those details change your heart about the death of an elderly person and a young person’s reactions a year later?

It’s seductive to play the what-ifs. What if the stillborn child was born to a sixteen year-old? (She’ll get over it. It’s better this way.) How can those adult children continue to grieve their parent a year later? (After my great aunt’s funeral, I was fine. Dying is part of life, you know!)

What I try to remember—though it’s amazingly hard—is that I don’t know about another’s life. Or how another’s death will, or will not, impact a person. When I work with the bereaved, one of their most common experiences is being compared to others: they are judged for the absence or presence of tears, for how quickly it takes them to get back to “normal.” Do you admire (or resent) the colleague who apparently dealt with a loved one’s death by plunging back into the pressures of a job? Our cultural values celebrate those who work hard, right? Are you bothered by (or even angry at) the friend moping around the house: the one who can’t “get their act together” a week/month/year after the death? Don’t most companies give employees three bereavement days (or maybe a full work week) . . . and therefore isn’t that a sufficient period of time for mourning?

What I try to remember—though it’s amazingly hard—are the different reactions when a celebrity dies. Robin Williams serves as a recent example. His suicide triggered myriad feelings. As the funny Mork on television, the rambunctious genie in “Aladdin,” and the compassionate therapist from “Good Will Hunting,” Williams resonated with several generations of fans. For many, it felt like a dear friend had died. But for others? Just another death in the news? What’s the big deal?

What I try to remember—though it’s amazingly hard—is that I truly don’t know how I will react to the death of a loved one. We often judge ourselves even more harshly than we judge others!

Stop it.

As tempting as it is to compare one person to another, or what I want to feel versus what I actually do feel, I hope we resist the lure of comparisons.

Take the time to learn how someone is truly feeling (including yourself), rather than deciding how he or she (or you) should feel. Which will be amazingly hard, and amazingly important.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image from “Good Will Hunting” from here.

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