Boycotting the Grief Olympics

Mostly, we humans love comparisons and competition. Around the world there are competitions going on all the time. Who bakes the best cake, spells the most words, or designs the best product? Comparisons abound and we often argue about who is best and what is worst. Perhaps nowhere is competition more focused and organized as in sports. Who runs the fastest or jumps the highest? Or who puts the bouncy ball more often through the metal hoop, in the back of the net, across the goal line, or over the net and in the court? We are very inventive. And winter brings even more creativity with skies, skates, sleds, and brooms and stones (search the internet for “curling”). Every four years, in summer and in winter, we have a particularly high-profile celebration of competition with the Olympics, and this month it is the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There is at least one area of life, however, where competition and comparisons are a poor fit. As has been said by many when discussing the human response to loss, “it’s not the grief Olympics.” Or it least, it shouldn’t be.

The temptation to compare is almost always present. Do I have it worse than you or do you have it worse than me? What is the worst loss? Some suggest the loss of a child. And if we were to go with that, what age child is the worst loss? Losing a baby with so much life left to experience? Or an older child who you watched grow for several years but where life is still cut short? Maybe an adult child after years of deepened bonds and common experiences? Each an out-of-order death.

Or let’s think about the loss of a spouse or partner. Is losing early in the relationship worse with all those potential years of loving and living together lost? Perhaps it’s worse after being together for many years when lives are entwined in ways that the loss feels like being cut in half. Is it harder to grieve when the relationship was deep, safe, and close or when it was full of conflict and unresolved issues?

Some say that dying peacefully in sleep is best, but is that an expected dying in one’s sleep or a shockingly out-of-the blue loss for family and friends? For unexpected deaths, those left behind often wish they had known and could have said important things to address some “unfinished business” (that is some phrase) or expressed their love one more time. Yet for those dealing with expected deaths, there is the weight of anticipation, the helplessness of witnessing suffering, and often the challenges of caregiving.

Witnessing death is hard and images and memories can haunt. But not being present at the time of death can be haunting, too, as many have experienced in this time of pandemic.

Heart attack, cancer, or accident? Homicide, suicide, or drug overdose? Stroke, dementia, kidney failure, or infectious disease? So many horrible choices to compare.

Then there’s the comparison of whether it’s us suffering and dying or someone we love. Which is worse? Confronting one’s own mortality and pain or witnessing one we love walk that path? Most of us do what we can to keep living but most of us would also take on the mortality burdens for our dearest ones, if we but could. To live in the midst of terrible choices or no choices at all—which is worse?

I hope that if you’ve made it this far, you are thinking, “Give it a rest! These are ridiculous questions. How can these things be compared? Each loss and grief experience are their own things, unique to the person at their particular time in life. What good can come out of such comparisons?”


Somewhere in childhood, I learned the phrase, “comparisons are always odious—they lead to vanity or despair.” The phrase “comparisons are odious” goes back to at least the 1400s in English, and there are reportedly equivalent phrases in French, Italian, and numerous other languages. The insight that comparisons are problematic appears old and widespread. Not so sure about the “vanity/despair” part.

We don’t say “odious” very much these days, but it seems a fitting word. Odious is much more than annoying or unpleasant. Odious is offensive. And considering the experience of a sick, dying, or grieving person and declaring that it is better or worse than the experience of another sick, dying, or grieving person can be very offensive. There is no need for such comparison. It is not a contest. It is not the illness, dying, or grief Olympics.

Nevertheless, even with necessary critiques of comparisons, there is a case for nuance as there can be times when comparisons are helpful. Sometimes comparisons give us the gift of perspective or we learn what is possible by seeing how others cope. Part of the nuance is understanding that comparisons can sometimes help us understand our own experience but we should avoid judgments of the experiences of others. So, if a comparison is a source of helpful learning, so much the better. If, however, it is a source of vanity or despair, or if it is a comparison of value instead of a valuable lesson, it has crossed into odious-land.

So let us agree to this: In the human experiences of serious illness, dying, and grief, there will be no gold, silver, or bronze medals. No podiums. No winners and no losers. We are boycotting the grief Olympics this year and every year going forward. Instead, the goal will be hands to hold, ears to hear, and hugs to give and receive for each and every participant in this thing called life.

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Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, FT
Program Coordinator
Center for Good Mourning
[email protected]

Other Voices 

It can be hard to feel hopeful in the midst of a pandemic that has lasted for almost two years with no end in sight. Dr. Daniela Lamas works in a hospital and sees the impact of COVID up close and personal. Yet she finds a way to hope. Here is part of her essay reflecting on her hospital experience with the Omicron variant:

“Earlier that day, my colleague explained to her what happened during her long hospital stay and what might come next in rehab. Then he paused and shifted his tone, telling his patient that she should let go of whatever guilt or shame she might be carrying over not getting vaccinated. She had made a mistake, but what is a hospital if not a place where we care without judgment for the many consequences of human fallibility? She started to cry. And then she asked him if she could get the shot. She received her first dose shortly afterward.” Continue Reading...

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In the Spotlight

It’s been needed for a long time, and now it’s here: a new and greatly improved edition of the Handbook of Thanatology: The essential body of knowledge for the study of death, dying, and bereavement. Most people know about biology—the study of life or “bios” in Greek. Not as many people know about “thanatology”—the study of death or “thanatos” in Greek. But as noted thanatologist Robert Kastenbaum observed, thanatology is the study of life with death left in. Read More

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Living All the Way

Illness and our healthcare systems can sometimes reduce the fullness of a human life to a list of symptoms to be addressed. Thankfully, there are many healthcare providers who push back on this understandable temptation. One such provider is Dr. Donald Berwick. His words to his daughter’s medical school class graduation in 2010 are just as needed and true today as they were then. Take A Look
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Particularly for Parents

It is often suggested to grieving people that they write about their thoughts and feelings as one way to cope with significant loss. This is a worthy suggestion as journaling has proven to be helpful for so many. The written reflections of Terri Leidich, a bereaved mother, are helpful to the rest of us, too. See More

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For Your Library

Two young adult novels about teenage boys who take jobs working in a funeral home where they learn more about life and find new paths for living.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015.

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.

Two books published in 2015 with stories of teenage boys who end up taking a job assisting a funeral director. One is an African-American living in Brooklyn. The other is in Australia. Both stories are told in the first person. Both have dreams of their own dead and wrestle with their own losses. And both find that the experiences dealing with the deaths of others is an unexpected pathway toward healing.

In The Boy in the Black Suit, Matt Miller is a senior in high school looking for a part-time job following the unexpected death of his mother. He needs to fill his afternoons, give his head somewhere else to go, and help support his dad who is struggling mightily following his wife’s death. Instead of getting the fast-food job he envisioned, he ends up working for the local funeral director and assisting with the tasks of flowers, food, ushering, and pallbearing. The grief that he witnesses at funeral services strangely comforts him as it helps him feel less alone and expresses much of what he struggles to understand and share with others. His father falters, falls into drinking heavily, and ends up hospitalized after being hurt in an accident. Matt learns more about the life and struggles of the local funeral home director who steps in to help fill the parental void for Matt. Meanwhile, Matt meets a girl with her own losses and ways of coping. In these new and unexpected relationships, Matt learns different ways of coping with loss and insights into his own grief and coping.

Author Jason Reynolds has an ear for dialogue and a feel both for what it feels like to be a teenage boy and a grieving child. Funny and poignant, it is a story not just about loss and coping, but about learning about the different layers of experience in the lives of those around us.

There is significantly more intimacy with the dead in the haunting and redemptive story told in The Dead I Know. Aaron Rowe’s school counselor refers him to the local funeral director for a possible job. There is a lot of mystery about Aaron’s home, family, and background as Aaron volunteers little in his relationship to the funeral director and his family. Over time, Aaron slowly shares more but it is clear that he carries secrets that he is reluctant to share. Unlike Matt Miller in The Boy with the Black Suit, Aaron is more comfortable with the dead than the living. He assists the funeral director in picking up bodies and preparing them for the funeral. Unlike in the US, the funeral practices in his funeral home involve cleaning and dressing the bodies but not embalming. For Aaron, the task-oriented work with dead bodies is less challenging than the exposure to expressions of grief by mourning family and friends. As the story continues, we learn that Aaron is caring for his grandmother whose dementia is becoming a greater and greater challenge to manage. We also learn that Aaron’s dreams are nightmares suggesting a past trauma that he is doing his best to avoid.

Australian author Scot Gardner is a former school counselor where he worked with disadvantaged and high-risk teens, and he clearly makes use of his experiences and well-earned insights from his work in this compelling story. The Dead I Know was a Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year.
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Taking Questions

How do you support someone grieving the loss of a child?

There are probably few things in this world which are harder than losing a child, and the grieving process is one which is likely to take years – it may go on forever. With the recent pandemic, many parents are in the unthinkable position of having lost a child, and this loss is likely to be one of the most impactful and painful experiences they will ever encounter.

Supporting someone who has lost their child is very hard. You may find that you don’t know what to say or how to approach themContinue Reading...


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