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Envy: The Lost Stage of Grief

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

When you lose someone, everyone begins talking about the stages of grief, ticking them off to you one by one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I'm not a fan of this grief theory, particularly because the woman who wrote about it, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, did not write it for someone experiencing a loss. She wrote it for someone facing death. These stages have been plastered over the grief experience and held up like some kind of universal standard. They promote the false idea of a neat beginning, middle, and end. Grief is nothing like this. It does not come in stages. It is not tidy. It does not end.

Grief is a living, flowing, shifting, multi-dimensional experience. It is a prism of many facets, always changing color as the light shines through it from different angles, bends against them, and finally breaks. It encompasses the stages written about by Kubler-Ross, but it is not defined by them. And this post is a prime example because in this post I want to talk about a very real but very forgotten and unexpressed aspect of grief—envy.

Envy is a unique facet of my pain since losing Ev. Envy is painful. It does not feel good. It is not pleasant or empowering for the person experiencing it. It is anger at a perceived inequality. Envy says, This person does not deserve better than me, but they are receiving better than me and that is unfair. Envy says, I am just as valuable, but I do not feel valued right now. It is an emotion that bereaved parents are particularly vulnerable to because child loss is an experience of profound inequality and injustice. Our children did not die because they deserved to. They did not die because we deserved to lose them. Your children are not alive because you deserve them more. There is nothing fair or just or equal about child loss.

Knowing that and saying that do not mean that I want to level the playing field. I don't want anyone else to ever experience this nightmare. But knowing that and saying that acknowledge the very unique and important part of suffering that says, I do not deserve this. Why is this so important to acknowledge? Because if we believe the people who suffer deserve to suffer, then we have no impetus for change, no reason to help, no basis for compassion. If we believe the people who suffer deserve to suffer, then when we experience our own suffering, we will believe we earned it somehow. We will perpetuate and accentuate our suffering as a kind of punishment, an ascetic flagellation of the soul. As a result, suffering grows. It gains power. And we birth more of it into the world.

Envy is a facet of suffering. As a natural human emotion, it is a universal experience. Shaming it is pointless. Feeling envy does not make you bad. It does not make you wrong. Just like anger, it is what you do with envy that counts. Like any emotion, it longs to be acknowledged and expressed. It does not mean that what you have causes me pain. It means that the implicit inequality and injustice illustrated by what you have and what I don't causes me pain. It means the gap between where I am and where I want to be causes me pain. When you wave to me from the other side of that gap, I am reminded of its existence and my pain is activated.

So, who can be a trigger for my envy? Anyone. Anyone who has not experienced child loss. I feel it most around other mothers who have not lost their children, particularly if their children are younger than mine. I imagine that's because I often fantasize and dream about going back in time to when Ev was younger, recapturing her somehow, long before the deadly thing within her had begun counting down. These thoughts and dreams are intrusive. I do not entertain them willingly. I do not perpetuate them. But they come just the same.

If I sound defensive, it's because I am defensive. I am defensive because someone else made me feel like my feelings were invalid. Someone close to me. Someone I trusted. Someone I believed could understand. But when I expressed my feelings of envy to this person, the response I got was, "Are you sure that's all it is? Because ... (fill in the blank with whatever you think it is or whatever you want it to be to fit your preconceived paradigm.)" It didn't really matter what I said after that, their mind was already made up. Instead of listening to me, this person chose to judge me. I was not heard. I was not seen. And my feelings were labeled invalid, my experience rendered meaningless. I think the worst part of this reaction was having someone tell me that my loss and my grief, and therefore my child, were not enough of a reason for me to feel the way I did. The implications are staggering and deeply wounding—that I care more about petty trivialities than my own daughter, that my daughter's memory and incredible being are not valuable enough to justify my feelings, that rather than being honest and authentic about my experience, I was doing just the opposite.

This kind of response is emotional gaslighting. Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic used by people with low empathy. It hijacks a person's perception of reality, cuts them off from their emotional guidance system, and sows doubt and discord between them and their intuition, or their higher self—their very heart. It is something we typically relegate to those who are emotionally stunted or personality disordered. But I have seen countless people practice emotional gaslighting on their loved ones time and time again. Not because they are disturbed, but because this is how we are taught to respond to pain.

We are taught to avoid pain at all costs. When we encounter it, in ourselves or someone else, we are driven to alleviate it. You can argue these are natural impulses. And perhaps the real error is that we are not taught otherwise. But pain can not be alleviated without first being acknowledged. If I go to the doctor and tell him my head hurts, he must acknowledge my physical pain in order to attempt to treat it. If he simply looks at me and says, "Try to think happier thoughts," he is refusing to validate the very real experience of my headache. And he is unable to treat it further because it does not exist in his view. Physical pain and emotional pain are not different. They are equally as real, equally as valid, and equal in the suffering they are capable of causing. Both can drive a person to end their own life rather than continue suffering. Both have been proven to be relievable, to some degree, by pain relief medications. If you want to help someone who is in pain, you must first witness it and acknowledge it to yourself and them. Anything less is emotional gaslighting.

Platitudes like, "They're in a better place," or "Think positive," or "Focus on the good things you have," imply that our pain is small and simple enough to be so easily relieved. It implies that we just aren't trying hard enough. It implies that we have power over our feelings. That we must be 'doing it wrong'. It means you cannot and do not see our suffering. And because that suffering is a part of us, an expression of us, it renders us invisible to you. I have heard it said that, "indifference is the opposite of love." Making someone invisible, refusing to see or hear them where they are, ignoring their suffering and their pain, minimizing and dismissing it—that is the epitome of indifference. It is not an act or sentiment of love. It is an impulse to distance oneself. We distance ourselves from what we fear. We fear what we don't want to experience.

Because envy is culturally shamed, very few people are willing to acknowledge it to themselves much less admit it to others. It has become a lost and forgotten stage of grief. I felt it when my mother died. Every mother's day when others were celebrating with their moms. Every time someone talked about going home for the holidays. Even now, almost twenty years later, when I see someone close to me in age enjoying the company of their mother, when I hear other bereaved parents express how grateful they are to have their mothers to comfort them, I feel it rise up in me like cold fire. Now, with Evelyn gone, I feel it like acid being poured down my throat on a near-daily basis. When I see mothers out with their children. When my friends complain to me about what their kids are up to now. When I hear about your son's first day of college, or your daughter's birthday party, or someone's piano recital, or someone's good or bad grades. I envy your wholeness, your joy, the sweet and blissful ignorance that allows you to actually complain about the innumerable blessings in your life.

I feel it most around people whose lives have parallels to my own. Those similarities seem to highlight the one glaring difference all the more. I feel it most around people who are happy, who seem to have many things going their way, who are experiencing and expressing joy. This is not because I do not want you to be happy or feel joy. It is not because I would feel better if you had less going for you. It is because I am not often able to reach the frequency of joy from where I am in my grief. It is because no matter how many amazing things happen for me from this point forward, they will never fill the hole that Ev has left behind. They will never be enough. I will never taste them like you do. When I see you celebrating, rejoicing, enjoying, my longing for those emotions and experiences is activated within me. And the very clear and very real understanding that though I may one day know that again, I will never know it in quite the same way is unavoidable. I feel the unfairness of that. And I desire, more than anything, to have what you do. Not to have your life. I don't want your success. I don't want your happiness. I don't want your children. I want my own. And I cannot have them. Ever. Not like that. My journey is to make peace with a different kind of experience—one that will always feel 'less than' to me. I am working to do that, but it will take an enormous amount of time. It will take an enormous amount of acceptance. And until I get there, I am asking for your patience, for your understanding, for your compassion, and for your sensitivity.

My point here is not to make you feel guilty about what you have that I don't. Your guilt will not relieve my pain. The inequality that says one person gets to outlive their child while another gets to be outlived by them does not mean that you shouldn't have your children. It does not mean that taking from you will give to me in any way. It simply means that in this way, at this time, the scales are uneven. For one, that equals pain. For another, joy. My point is not to shame you for being on the right side, the good side, of the scale. My point is to normalize the experience of both, to make it okay to acknowledge that imbalance. It doesn't make one wrong and another right. It simply makes them both valid. But that is scary because it means we have to admit that inequality and injustice exist, not simply as created human constructs but as fundamental aspects of nature. It means there is no qualifier for suffering or joy. Loss, pain, trauma, grief can strike anyone at any moment. As can luck, happiness, love, fortune. Disaster and calamity are realities we must face alongside blessing and prosperity. Safety is not an absolute. Neither is danger.

If you find yourself on the up-side of the scale, try to remember what it felt like once to be on the other end. Maybe you can't do that specifically. You can't know, for example, as a parent with living children what it feels like to lose one. But you can remember times and experiences in your life when someone else was enjoying something unavailable to you. You can remember the sting of that sudden and stark realization—Oh, it's not about what I deserve. The saying that "bad things happen to good people" exists for this very reason. And the opposite is true as well. Good things happen to lousy people. Parents who abuse and victimize their children get to keep them, while parents who love and adore theirs must let them go. Allow that remembrance to spark the fire of compassion within you. Allow that compassion to give you patience and sensitivity when the person on the other side of the scale is someone you love, someone who is hurting, someone who cannot always delight in your victories with you because their own losses are dragging them down. If you are strong enough, acknowledge the difference between you. The rightness of their experience does not make yours wrong, and vice versa. Hold loving space for them when they cannot be at your side, and know that when their heart has experienced deeper healing, they will return. But they may always need time away, now and again, to suffer their pain quietly. They don't do this because they don't want to support you or because they begrudge you your victories. They do it because like any human being, they cannot control their pain and they are trying not to hurt you in the process.

And if you find yourself on the down-side of the scale, for any reason whatsoever, know this: You're absolutely right. You do not deserve it. It is unfair. And that is simply how it is. Try not to make the people close to you wrong for having a different, and in your perception a better, experience. Remember that your anger is not really at them, that your envy is not about them at all. It is about your loss, your grievance, your pain. Remember a time in your life when you were on the other side and how it didn't make you wrong or right to be there. Know that you are not wrong for feeling the way you do now. Know that it is okay and loving to ask for the time and space you need when it comes to parties, celebrations, holidays, bridal and baby showers, happy events, or the company of certain people. But be prepared to have your request met with defensiveness, anger, or hurt in some cases. Though your feelings are not personal, some people will take it personally. They will take your truth to mean that you are implying that they do not deserve their good fortune, rather than that their experiencing good fortune is not always based on what they deserve. It will trigger fear in them to think otherwise because it means they are as open and vulnerable to negative experiences as you or anyone else.

When those people lash out at you, treat you unfairly, or distance themselves, let them go. They are not your tribe. Just as you cannot access the frequency of joy required to always be at their side, they cannot access the frequency of compassion required to always be at yours. In both cases, pain gets in the way. And while all pain is not equal in severity, it is all equal in validity. Love yourself through the rejection. Love yourself through the brutality. Love yourself through the anger that shakes you from inside like you swallowed a hornet's nest. Love yourself through the envy that grinds salt into your wounds time and time again. Know that you can hold both love and envy at the same time, and neither negates the other. Know that you are normal, you are grieving, and you are human. Do not hold yourself to the unrealistic expectations others have of you. Instead, make space in the world for all experiences, all feelings, all points of view. Especially, dear heart, your own.

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