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August 22, 2018 Beyond The Dash

The Hierarchy of Grief

Why do we feel the need to compare our trauma?

The Hierarchy of Grief
Those on the periphery of a family's grief can use the hierarchy of grief to understand their role in the loss. However, this structure should never be used to belittle another's grief. (Shutterstock)

Social hierarchies inform many aspects of modern life. When a loss occurs, most families revere those related closest with the deceased person, creating a hierarchy of grief. Though this hierarchy can be interpreted in many ways—some of which are quite toxic—there are reasons for deferring to closest relatives when someone passes away. 

Generally, people consider the grief of closest relatives to be highest priority. This includes the spouse, children, parents and siblings. Extended family, like aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and godparents represent the next "tier" of the hierarchy, and are followed by other relationships like colleagues, friends, classmates and acquaintances. 

However, modern life doesn't always center around the nuclear family. For some people, their friends are family. Cousins can be best friends. And spouse doesn't always mean "legally married." As relationship structures change, hierarchical ideals of how mourning rituals should be handled are going by the wayside. 

When we discuss grief hierarchies, there are two separate, but related, meanings.

1. Whose emotional pain is the "worst"

There's no way to compare the pain of loss, but that's exactly what comes to mind when we start exploring grief hierarchies. This definition ranks certain deaths as more painful. For example, many people consider the loss of a child, parent or spouse to be "worse" than other types of grief. 

Ranking grief by relationship to the deceased makes sense in some regards. Some relationships, like that of parent to child, usually have strong emotional, practical and financial bonds—all factors that can make grief even more difficult.

For hierarchies to work, there must be lower ranks in order for higher ranks to exist. That is why this view of grief so easily becomes toxic. It's important to remember that everyone is grieving, and there's no real way to determine who is grieving the most.

That said, if you are an acquaintance or distant friend, don't be the person that hijacks a family's grief. There should be deference and sensitivity afforded to those who were closest to the deceased person by all mourners. Be aware of your place in the hierarchy, but don't use it to belittle the grief of others. 

There is no real benefit to enforcing a rank system within a grieving family. The actual effects tend to be stifled grief expressions (of those not at the top of hierarchical grief), and pressure to mourn a certain way (for those who are considered very close to the deceased person). 

However,  outsiders can use the grief hierarchy to figure out practical matters, like to whom to send flowers. 

2. How we should pay our respects to a grieving family

Though no two grief reactions should be compared, as mentioned above, there are real and important reasons for grief hierarchies to exist. The most immediate reason to understand mourning hierarchies is notification of survivors following a death.

Imagine scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed, only to find out that your brother has passed away. A thoughtless cousin has posted a tribute to his life before you even had the chance to hear about the tragedy. Unfortunately, this type of scenario has become much more common in recent years, as the internet and hyper-connectivity become a part of the way we honor our dead.  

Hierarchies can keep us on track when someone has passed, by reminding us that others are grieving too. When a loved one has died, those who were emotionally close with or directly related to the deceased person should be notified first. Everyone else should avoid publicly announcing the death until family and friends have been properly notified.

Another reason to consider the grief hierarchy is when you are delivering condolences. If a friend has passed, and you aren't familiar with their family, it's good practice to offer your heartfelt condolences to those who would traditionally be at the 'top' of the hierarchy—namely, parents, spouse, children or siblings. It is a sign of respect in most cultures to send flowers to the closest survivor of a loss. 

The takeaway

Being aware of a hierarchy of grief is useful for navigating a number of loss-related social situations. However, it shouldn't be used to compare or evaluate grief. There's no comparison when it comes to loss. And comparing your grief with another's can actually be toxic. 

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