We wanted our home to be a welcoming place where friends felt free to drop in, so I wasn’t surprised when the doorbell rang late one evening. I opened the door to see my friend Nathan (not his real name) standing there. His downcast eyes and slumped shoulders signaled that he had more on his mind than iced tea and casual conversation.
It was a warm spring night—the humidity of summer had yet to set in, so we sat on the front porch and Nathan started unpacking his troubles.
A couple of years earlier, he had made a business decision that started out well but then took a downturn. His company’s value was sinking fast, and so was his personal net worth. He was facing the possibility of bankruptcy.
We talked and prayed, and then Nathan did something I wish he hadn’t … He apologized. He said he was sorry to bother me because he knew that my pain was worse than his. (This was just a few months after my wife died.)
But he was wrong, my pain wasn’t worse than his.
The Bible tells us: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). This means that there is pain so deep and personal that no other person can possibly feel its agony, just as there is a joy so elevated that no outsider can experience its thrill. Some feelings just can’t be exported, which is why I’ve adopted a motto about grief:
Don’t dare compare.
Comparing our grief to others increases the likelihood that we will either exaggerate our pain and wrap ourselves in a cocoon of self-pity or downplay our pain and stiff arm the grace we need for healing to begin. The better choice, the choice to which Proverbs 14:10 points, is to own our pain.
Nathan’s pain was real. But if he continued to de-legitimize it by comparing it to mine, he wasn’t going to move forward. On the other hand, if he had viewed his circumstances as more severe than anyone else’s, he would have closed himself off from the help and comfort of others.
My conversation with Nathan came back to mind a few years later when I was leading a grief recovery group at my church. A lady (I’ll call her Carmen) had attended several times but had yet to participate in the discussions. I didn’t push, but hoped she’d eventually open up to us. The night we talked about the pitfalls of comparison, she was obviously tuned in. The following week she told her story to the group.
Carmen explained that she had been attending because her mother had died many years ago and she had never really grieved. Carmen was a little girl when her mother died, and though she had been raised by a caring stepmother, she often experienced deep feelings of sadness over missing her mother. “Until last week,” Carmen whispered tearfully, “I never felt I had the right to be sad about something that happened so long ago. Thank you for giving me permission to cry.”
Across the room from Carmen sat a lady whose husband had died just five months earlier. Next to Carmen sat a lady whose parents had both died within six months of each other. A few rows in front of Carmen sat a man whose father had committed suicide. Across the aisle sat a man whose son had been born with multiple health issues and had died in infancy.
Tell me, whose pain was worse? Which person in that group had the most reason to grieve? And did Carmen have no right to be sad because her loss had occurred so many years ago?
We know the answer, don’t we? Each heart had its own private sadness. Comparing would have served no good purpose in that room of grievers. And it's not going to help you.
© 2021 by Tim Grissom. All rights reserved.