There Are No Winners in the Pain Olympics

BlogHer Original Post

Even Voltaire's characters played the Pain Olympics. In Candide, when Cunégonde complains about her rape and family's murder, the old woman she's complaining to counters with her own story which is equally horrible. The old woman challenges Cunégonde and Candide to ask every passenger aboard the ship they are on to tell them their life story and promises that every single one has their own personal trials. And, of course, they do.

It's a familiar concept in the infertility community and it moves in two directions. On one side is the ongoing one-upmanship practiced by Cunégonde -- implying or telling another person that they simply don't have it as bad as you do. Equally damaging is the figurative removal of medals in the Pain Olympics -- holding up your own struggles against another person's struggles and diminishing your own.

Psychology Today addressed this idea of hierarchical grief in a recent article. Her experience is of the latter variety, with people holding their grief up to her own and deferring to her grief by diminishing their own.

There's a kindness to this line of reasoning; an unconscious tip of the hat or stepping aside allowing an unwitting newcomer to this gruesome club to enter first. It's poignant to me, this ritual of somehow diminishing one's pain to honor another's.

She begins with discussing the loss of her brother, but she continues into the world of pregnancy loss. She points out the ladder of loss:

There's definitely a self-imposed hierarchy of grief in the land of early pregnancy loss. You feel you certainly should not be in the kind of pain like someone who suffered a stillbirth. Worst of all are the parents who held that baby in the NICU while she died in their arms. They are totally the Biggest Grief Losers, right?

I think what is missing with this mentality is the idea that while you would never want your pain belittled by another person -- you want your pain noticed and you want that human connection -- if you buy into this thinking, you are belittling another person's pain. Losing your child in the NICU is a horrific experience, but is it truly worse than a stillbirth? Can you quantify loss? For those who would, can they also admit that there are those who stretch in the other direction above them -- those who lost a child at one month, at one year, at five years, at ten. At what age does the scale tip and make the loss more bearable to the NICU parents that the author holds up as a hypothetical Biggest Grief Loser?

I'm not sure why grief is always seen in a ladder form, with some grief being worse than others, rather than a lateral plane with all grief standing side-by-side. Which is exactly what the author points out as a possibility by the end of the article -- that grief is such a personal matter, that the processing of grief has so many threads tied around it, that it is impossible to quantify grief and there is no reason why we can't all stand on the stage together rather than jockeying other people off the podium to claim the crown of Biggest Grief Loser. What is ever gained by knocking someone else from the stage? It certainly doesn't remove your grief, and it only serves to create more hurt in the universe.

September 29th recently explored this topic on her blog under the idea of "just getting over yourself." She admits that "just because I have had to wait years for our child doesn’t mean I have won the Pain Olympics. I don’t know Fertile Myrtle’s secret hardships."

Two Hot Mamas also broached this topic this week, wondering if she's "infertile enough." After she lists everything she went through to have her daughter, she writes,

I can read that list and see how ridiculous it is to feel like I haven't earned my dues. I can look at the list, and know how thankful I am that I was on the love.nox, especially after what the anesthesiologist said. I can look at the list and know that having our baby doesn't take that pain away.

Bee in the Bonnet also recently looked at how her journey measured up, examining where she would fall on a pain ladder. "In the 'Pain Olympics', I would wager that my situation falls somewhere on the low-to-medium end of the spectrum."

A woman in my hometown had a catastrophic loss, losing her entire family in one night. It was unfathomable. For years after, whenever I would be moaning about my grief, I'd internally lash out at myself by reminding myself that my pain couldn't even touch what that woman went through and I needed to get over myself.

My infertility therapist was familiar with her story, so I once referred to it when belittling my feelings about infertility and loss. It was at that point that she reminded me that just because that woman's horrific story exists, it does not wipe out all other grief on earth.

You don't have to go to the most horrific ends to be justified in crying in the same way that you do not need to be starving from famine in order to be hungry. Your stomach grumbles, it reminds you that need food, and it would be foolish to not feed yourself or deny your own hunger just because there are those out there without food who are experiencing the physical pain of hunger as well. Their starvation doesn't erase your hunger. Just as another person's grief cannot erase my own. This is my personal story and I need to own it, admit that I feel this grief deeply, and the point is not to examine how it compares to another person's grief, but instead to focus on how I can move through it without drowning.

It is too easy to tell yourself that you didn't have it that bad or that other people don't have it as bad as you. It's an exercise that serves as a distraction. It is much harder to stop the comparisons and do your own grief work, wading through your own feelings with a microfocus, one tear at a time.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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