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Grieving as a Competitive Sport


wrote this some months after my twin brother Tim died. It is a bit of satire about grieving and I knew when I wrote that he would laugh and enjoy it. I hope you do as well. Please make a comment if you have grieved, are grieving or maybe you knew Tim. Thanks.

Envision a sport that everyone plays, but no one wins. There is no scoreboard, but everyone keeps score. All spectators give coaching advice to help you improve, and yet, none of what is told to you is really helpful. I believe that I have just described the sport of grieving.

I call it a sport in part because of the sheer number of players and spectators who attend the events. Then there is the amount of time dedicated to grieving by all levels of emotional connection to the person who has died. There are even unknown grief favorites in the sport to whom monuments are erected and who’s birthdates are celebrated by those who grieve. Lady Diana, Martin Luther King, Jr.,Whitney Houston and Tupac Shakur as a handful of examples of those whose grievers continue their connection. Their deaths signify a period of time that has ended with the passing of a single person.

It is an odd sport. No one ever signs up to play. There are no try-outs and little way of organized coaching. If you are considered a player it is because you are designated as one of those people who was very close to the person who has died. If you are close to the players, you have a different role- spectator/supporter/player. Grieving is a complicated sport.

The score-keeping is very odd, like Cricket matches. As a participant, which everyone has been or will be, you will be scored. The criteria are defined but there is not a point system. These criteria include:

1) If you grieve for too short a period of time, you are viewed to be in denial and unwilling to face the loss of someone who did or should have meant something to you.

2) If you grieve for too long a period of time, then you are obsessed and just can’t move on with your life.

3) Grieve too stoically and you are stuffing your feelings inside of you, potentially causing you and others future emotional damage.

4) Grieve too dramatically and you are seen as seeking attention or are obsessed and you just can’t move on with your life.

5) No answer that is given to the solemnly asked question, “So, how you doin’?” will be sufficient to the asker, although your answer will then be repeated to many other spectators. Answers are assigned a value. The value is always tempered by the listener’s fundamental disbelief in whatever is said. They do not think you are a liar, just incomplete in your self-awareness.

The real challenge is that you are always seen, by the spectators, as doing one or more of the those listed types of poor performances. There is no way to really do it correctly. No one approaches a person who is in his or her state of grief and says, “Good job on your grieving! Well done!” It is just not a part of the language of this sport.

A grieving person's internal scoring is even worse. How am I, as someone who is a grieving a person, going to measure if I am feeling better, worse or staying even? Is it the number of times I think of the person in a day or week? Perhaps it is the number of times I speak of him or her. Possibly it is the number of tears I shed or have to hold back. What does it say about my true emotional connection to someone who has passed if there are times I do not think about the person? What does it say if I do not emotionally react when I am asked about how I am doing or how hard it must be? Maybe I feel like I am considering all of it from a removed perspective and do not feel anything? Does that make me a jerk? From the competitor’s standpoint, it is hard to score all of this and even more difficult to establish a “Personal Best” for this sport on the inside of your mind and heart. Grievers usually say that they do not care about what others think. That statement is really not true. That’s why there are two scoring systems; your own in your heart and the other externally imposed spectator system. Keeping score is not an “if” question. The question is of which system(s) are you using.

I am playing this "sport" recently more frequently than I would like. Any number greater than zero would be more than I would like. I have lost my twin brother in the past 6 months. I have watched him grieve for his father-in-law over the year prior to his own death. I am watching my father-in-law and his nephew grieve over a brother, a father. I thought that I was a big grief player and a regular spectator in the sport of grief. As I talk to other people, I realize I am not even in the top 20% of people in the sport right now. People are dying every day. The domino-effect is unmistakable- unless you have decided to completely isolate yourself from playing in the sport of life. You will be forced to participate in the sport of grieving. Ask around, more people are playing than you think and often on more grief teams than you.

One of the modern practices for children’s sports that receives condemnation is the awarding of “participation” ribbons or trophies. These awards acknowledge that the child or children showed up, worked hard but did not actually win the contest. Grieving is a bit like that if it is measured as a sport. No one gets a “first place” ribbon, or the big trophy. All we get are “participation” ribbons that we collect over life. It is also a sport that is as hard to win by helping other people with their grief. What is there to describe that is ribbon worthy? It is an individual sport over which the player has little control, training or technique. As an aside, I am very glad that grieving does not have a tournament. As an American, I am fearful that with our propensity to turn everything into a competition, we might make grieving into an Olympic sport. Let’s pray not.

How cold and callous it is to consider grieving in this metaphor of sports. I think that it is part of my process of grieving for my brother. I think grieving is about expressing love about something we do not understand how to measure. We know how to measure sports because there are scores. We know how to measure careers, children, cars and of course, stuff because there are dates, numbers, speeds and prices. There are a lot of systems of measurement in our worlds, but not a really clear one for love and loss.

I have to remember as I am grieving that all of the pithy questions and comments I hear are really people saying to me, “I love you and I’m sorry you are in pain.” When I feel the loss and it overwhelms me or when it leaves me for a while, either is an internal expression of, “I love you. I miss you. This sucks,” that I am saying for myself to the person who is gone. The person is not grieving. Grieving is for the living. Those who have passed know how the story of life ends and are just waiting for us to join them. They do not keep score either.

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