Competitive Suffering

I love to cozy up in my favorite chair with a good book more than almost anything else in the world. This morning there are several books within arm’s reach, one on parenting teenagers, Anne Lamott’s latest and my kindle. I could cocoon here happily for several hours. That’s not going to happen, but the idea that I wish it could makes me smile. It took me several years to get back to my bookwormish self, but I did.

After Sam’s death, I lost my interest in reading. I barely had the attention span for the caption under a photograph in the morning paper, let alone an entire magazine article. A novel was out of the question. Apparently this inability to focus is common among those who have recently suffered a significant loss. One dear and well-intentioned friend brought me a legal treatise on retirement plans and spousal rollovers. Seriously. Even without the grief-induced brain trauma, my eyes roll up in the face of phrases like “defined contribution plan” and “minimum required distributions.” I would need a more compelling reason to curl up with the Internal Revenue Code. Needless to say, I never finished reading the Great American IRA Debate. I barely even got past the title. Nonetheless, I was grateful (astonished, really) that my friend had faith in my capacity to focus and read, and I left it at that.

Several friends (knowing that I am an avid reader) recommended the book A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which chronicles the year following her husband’s fatal heart attack. She was sitting down to dinner with her husband one evening and the next moment he was dead. As I recall (and I could be wrong about this — in addition to inattention, I suffered from grief-induced amnesia), it was the only book I actually finished in that first year following Sam’s suicide.

You might think her story would resonate with me, that I would appreciate the perspective of a fellow traveler grappling with the fact that her entire world turned upside down overnight. But I didn’t. I thoroughly resented it. Throughout the entire book, I kept thinking The man had a pacemaker,  for crying out loud. How surprised could you have been? My husband wasn’t diagnosed, medicated or even in therapy. Your daughter had graduated from college when her father died. My youngest son just finished kindergarten!

I couldn’t take her whining. I had way too much whining of my own to do.

Around that same time, the boys had some friends over to play. One of the kids was pretending to host a game show he called “What’s Your Tragedy?” He was standing on the stage (the bed), talking into the microphone (his curled fist): “Helllloooo Cincinnati, you’re on live with widows and orphans. Tell us (as he extends the microphone to the contestant), What’s your tragedy?”

Whatever you say in response to his outstretched fist will be pathetic. To play the game is to lose.

I wish I could say I didn’t get sucked into playing my own version of What’s Your Tragedy. I did. At least for a while. Honestly, marinating in the misery of a painful loss can be a vital part of the healing process. It can be helpful to visit that place, but I didn’t want to take up permanent residence there. It’s the competitive practice of suffering that is counterproductive. I didn’t like the way I felt when I was trying to convince myself (or worse, somebody else) how much worse my own life was. Or my sons’ lives. Because they were young, or because I was. Or wasn’t. Or whatever.

I did not want to become one of those people who engage in competitive suffering. There is no room for gratitude in that space. I didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of Sam’s death, even though suicide is messy. I didn’t want to identify myself primarily or exclusively as a widow, even though I have been widowed.

Ultimately, it’s neither accurate nor productive to compare death by cancer, suicide, heart failure, accident or homicide, to pit divorce against death in a misguided abandonment contest. This path does not lead to the Sweet Sixteen, only madness. I know more than one friend for whom the loss of a faithful pet would create more significant grieving than the death of an absentee or alcoholic or abusive parent. I cannot even contemplate how painful the death of a child must be. There is no path toward meaning in the What’s Your Tragedy paradigm. No two people suffer the same. It all just hurts.

At the end of the day I became an expert on my own grief. Like the well-drawn antagonist in a novel, my grief has forced my own character growth. I don’t know that this was strictly necessary —  I was already a character. Some days my grief took my legs out from under me, grabbing an ankle like an imp, laughing when I fell to the ground flat on my face. That little beast needs attention. Some days my grief spewed its toxic, fiery dragon breath in my face, and I learned to stand patiently, calmly, while the brute exhausted its venom, eventually curling up like a sleepy kitten. Some days it sat like a weight on my shoulders or in the pit of my stomach. Gradually, I grew less afraid of its heft and more tolerant of its presence. Some days grief whispered its discouraging messages. Sit here. You can’t do this. Just stop. Eventually, I recognized its voice. I have come to know the facets of my own grief, not exactly as a friend, but almost like a trusted mentor. And my heart softened toward the phases of my grief, creating an inner strength and the capacity to extend compassion toward another’s suffering.

The crux of healing is to find a way to incorporate the fact of the loss — not to ignore it or to become overwhelmed by the loss — and still to keep moving. I learned to reach a caring arm, first to myself, and then toward others suffering their own unique losses, without the need to compare and contrast my own travails. Their grief is not about mine.

I had found my way out the What’s Your Tragedy gameshow and back toward living a life. With love, with joy, with compassion. And even with a renewed attention span for reading.


Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the inspiration to get out of the game.

One thought on “Competitive Suffering

  1. Charlotte:

    I saw Megan Mayer in March, in Pebble Beach; she treated me to lunch at the Beach Club, and she recommended your blog. My mom, who lives in Maine, was staying with us in Glendale for the winter because she’s 87 and has dementia, and I took her to a traditional (Dixieland) jazz festival in Monterey; she’s been a big fan of that music forever. Anyway, darling Megan wowed me with this fantastic lunch overlooking that famous green etc. and urged me to check out your blog. Finally I did, and how grateful I am she is just a teensy bit pushy, in the nicest and most lovingly helpful possible way.

    I just want to express my appreciation for the several posts I’ve read. You have a gift, and I’m glad you are using it. Having known you and Sam a bit during that mythical era–law school (did we really do that?)–and having met your lovely husband Tim, and having had my own struggles with grief, faith, and all that, I am so appreciative of your deeply reflective and meticulously crafted posts.

    All the best—

    Vicki Shabanian

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