Comparing That Death to This Death

Robin Williams and Matt Damon in 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

Which death is the most difficult to death with? On the list below, which person should be in “better shape” and has probably “moved on” in their life?

  • 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.

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

Unfortunately, I think many folks—including me—publicly or privately rank the severity of another’s person’s situation. We compare and contrast with other facets of life: careers, homes, our child’s achievements, cars, last year’s vacation, and so forth. Advertising relentlessly reinforces judgment, from the new solar panels on the neighbor’s roof to the newest smartphone in a classmate’s hand. The people beside you or across the street or in the pharmaceutical commercial are better off than you. (Or, whew, they are a smidgen worse than you!)

If we compare the things of life, why not compare the ways of death?

Isn’t a young and vibrant teen killed in a traffic accident far worse than an old and feeble grandparent dying from dementia?

But what if . . .

It was a single vehicle accident, and the nineteen-year-old got high? It wasn’t the first time, but one of multiple times of partying with alcohol and drugs. As was often the case, he rode his motorcycle without a helmet while sending a text. At a blind turn, he roared off a rain-slicked road and smashed into a tree. (I could keep making this pretend situation 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?

But 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 pretend situation 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 evaluated 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 an ample amount of time?

What I try to remember—though it’s amazingly hard—are the different reactions when a celebrity dies. Robin Williams’ 2014 death serves as a recent example. His suicide triggered myriad feelings. It may also have caused an increase in suicides. Research released in 2018 indicated there may have been a nearly 10% uptick in suicides following the endless news of Williams’ death. As the funny Mork on television, the rambunctious genie in Aladdin, and the compassionate therapist in Good Will Hunting, Williams resonated with several generations of fans.

For many, the comedian’s death felt like the loss of a dear friend. But for others? Just another death in the 24/7 information circus? 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.)

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  1. This strikes something in me. Mom has been gone 14 months and I grieve terribly. A friend told me when her dog died, it took her about 6 months to get over it. The audacity of some people. I think they are trying to comfort me, but really, a dog? If it wasn’t for the pain of that statement I would laugh. I don’t know if there is a time when I don’t grieve for Mom. I hope so, I can’t stand this feeling forever.

    Larry, keep up the writing, it soothes my grief and you are a terrific writer. I always get something out of your topics.

    • Alicia:

      I would like to think your friend who had a dog die was awkwardly trying to find a way to “comfort” you. I sure hope so, but sometimes people simply don’t know what to say. Silence or a simple hug might be the better choice. In some ways, I suspect you will always grieve for your Mom. I do for mine. But I also believe the grieving softens and changes.

      Thanks for reading and responding to my thoughts. Take care.

  2. Two deaths occurred. My mother died in 2007. We were estranged for 20 years at the time of her death. I was able to meet with her 1x in the hospital before she died. I was not given the opportunity to restart the relationship. I was angry and very hurt. At times I miss my mother but not that woman who died. She actually died many years ago.

    The next death was my brother who died January 1 of this year. We were not close at all. However, due to circumstances I ended up being his caregiver for the last year of his life. I was present for his death. I am still mourning his death and talking about it as if it happened yesterday.

    When talking with my brother I day, I had to ask when our mother died. I could not remember. He was able to state the date very quickly. I kinda felt ashamed that I could not recall when she died. I will remember the date my brother died. I was there.

    No two deaths are the same. I learned that very quickly.

    I enjoyed your article. Thank you.

    • Regina:

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. So, so true . . . no two deaths are alike. I hope you have good support as you continue to mourn your brother’s death.

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