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, designs the best product?

Perhaps nowhere is competition more focused and organized than 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?

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.

It Shouldn’t be the Grief Olympics

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.

Comparing Losses

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?

‘Give it a Rest’

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.

Grief is Not a Contest

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

Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two adult children. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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