The Invisible Hierarchy of Grief
For the last decade, I have been preparing myself for the BIG death; the earth-shattering, life-changing, my world will never be the same, death. The type of event that hits so quickly, felt so deeply, that your entire body goes into auto-drive. I’ve often wondered, in my own dramatic way, what would I do when I heard life-shattering news? Would I fall to my knees? Would I go into a state of shock that I'd be unable to form words or thoughts or, would I grow cold and distant from those I loved?
A month before the BIG event, I was sitting in my friend's car post-lunch talking about death. It's not an unusual conversation for me. For the last five years, I've worked in hospice care and have felt oddly comfortable with end of life discussions. I shared with my friend that at thirty-four, I felt blessed. I still had all four of my grandparents and I have known three great grandparents in my lifetime. My first great grandma died when I was ten, my second at nineteen, and my great grandfather at thirty-two. So, I was fully prepared, in so many ways, to lose a grandparent. Hell, I've already been preparing myself for the death of a parent, but I was not prepared for losing my brother-in-law at just 30 years old.
On Sunday, February 3, 2019, it was a normal Sunday for me and my partner. We woke up, went to our favorite breakfast spot, and decided to take in a day at the aquarium and a local museum. We spent the morning laughing, joking around, and talking about the vast array of things we were discovering. Mid-day, I received a call from my sister in a panic. She told me that Ricky, her husband & the father of their two children, was missing with his best friend, Ryan.
“He was supposed to be home by noon for the game (Superbowl Sunday) but no one has heard anything from them since last night. Search and rescue is out looking for them..." She said
I remained calm and told her, "I'm sure they're alright. They probably had a late night, pulled their usual shenanigans and will be home soon. Keep me posted, okay?" I really wasn't worried. In hindsight, I wonder if that meant something. Why wasn't I worried? Why didn't I take my sisters panic as something more serious? How could I go on with my day, like it was nothing? How did I not know?
For the last decade, I was used to Ricky and Ryan's shenanigans. They had been best friends since childhood so, when Ricky started dating my sister, Ryan was there too. He became a part of our family as those two did everything together. They were both crazy, rebellious, wild men, who were the life of every party. They had a million adventures where they barely made it out alive but somehow, miraculously, lived to tell their hilarious story. I thought this would be another one of those times. I thought this would be another close call.
I was in a crowd-filled elevator when my sister called me back, just a few hours later. I answered the phone. The elevator door opened. And I heard my sister scream, "They're gone!"
I took a few steps out of the elevator and hit the ground and never stopped screaming and crying. I cried all night while packing my bags to go home. I cried at the airport, in the security line, in my chair waiting to board my flight. I even cried during the entire flight home while passengers gave me concerned looks. It’s funny that no one ever asked me if I was okay. Even if they had, I’m not sure I would have been able to say anything.
Ricky and my sister had been together since they were just out of high school. We were all very close and I often spent all my spare time with them; game nights, movies, dinners, just hanging out by a fire, shooting the shit and drinking. He wasn't just my brother but one of my favorite human beings. His presence was HUGE; he was charismatic, good looking, funny, talented, and a great person. He had a heart of gold and I enjoyed all of our moments, even when he drove me insane.
Just twenty-four hours after we found out, the entire state of Colorado found out too - despite our great efforts to keep their deaths private. We hadn't even shared the news with anyone outside of our close family. We were still processing the unbelievable reality that two very special people in our lives were gone when we suddenly felt bombarded by everyone.
Across every news and radio station, the stories were traveling quickly; "Sno-Cat falls through ice in lake; two men feared dead."
Ricky and Ryan's bodies lay at the bottom of the frozen lake waiting to be retrieved and we knew they were gone, and we're still trying to process the unbearable reality of that when we had to deal with the pain of social hate.
People were quick to judge regardless of not knowing anything; "They deserved it – idiots!”
My sister, in the deepest parts of her grief, was suddenly standing up for her husband, upset about the awful things written by strangers that could one day be read by her children. I even joined in, engaging in ridiculous banter to protect the men that we lost. We were confused about how strangers could be so quick to judge a situation that they knew nothing about. A situation that even the news stations were inaccurately reporting. We didn't have many answers and we had to suddenly hear and read the cold heartless comments made by our communities. And I remember thinking, have we become so numb to grief that we no longer approach it with empathy but with showmanship?
For the next five days, I never left my sister's side. I went with her to the sheriff's office to get updated reports; if and when their bodies could be retrieved from the frozen lake. I went with her to the funeral home to retrieve Ricky's personal items-waterlogged and frozen. I was there to support her and Ricky's parents as they made funeral arrangements. I slept next to my sister, in her and Ricky's bed, and comforted her as best as I could when she awoke drenched in her own tears. And I helped her plan the memorial service, helped with the kids and answered the millions of requests we received for meals, donations, fundraisers, and private events, all in honor of Ricky, her, and their children. It was then that I noticed how I wasn’t really grieving. I was going through the motions.
Anytime I started to miss Ricky a voice crept behind saying. "Your sister lost her husband, the love of her life, her soulmate. Her grief is more important."
Anytime I remembered a fond memory, a voice crept in, "Your nephew and niece lost their dad. They’re so young, they won't remember anything about him. Their grief is more important." And anytime I wanted to talk about how important he was to me that voice said, "His parents lost their miracle child, your grief is nothing compared to theirs." Why?
I believe there is an invisible hierarchy to grief, that many of us don’t acknowledge but many of us willingly follow.
How many times do find it difficult to accept someone’s grief if it’s not in direct relationship to the deceased? Especially, when the said person is not an immediate family member or close friend? How many times do we think, “Well, it’s not like he was her REAL brother…” or “They were only dating for a few months, how hard can it REALLY be?”
For me, even though I had all the credentials to justify my grief to those around me, I still didn’t feel worthy of the deep sadness I felt. This notion felt validated by the lack of condolences I received from people I considered friends, not just acquaintances. It hurt my feelings that these people didn’t feel compelled to say, “Sorry for your loss,” or ask how I was doing. As if my sadness and grief didn’t mean anything, or at the very least, when it was viewed as a whole, I seemed like a very small piece of the puzzle.
When it comes to loss are there really any small parts?
I think of death as one huge event that trickles down into a million paths each impacting, forevermore, all the people and groups on that path; all in different ways and all just as important. However, I have realized that as a society, we may not feel that way. We often prioritize certain individuals over others, based on the labels of their relationship to the deceased and not the depth or importance of that relationship.
Because my grief was not acknowledged, I found that I was compounding it with everyone else’s. I wasn't just holding my sadness, but I was grieving the loss of my sister’s soulmate, my nephew and niece’s father, and Ricky's parents who lost their only son. Grief hit me like a nuclear bomb; hard, fast, with no chance of surrender. I felt unworthy of grieving the loss of my brother, so I put my attention on those around me that were feeling his loss, exponentially. I was drowning in everyone's pain and no one did that to me, but me.
Six months after his death, I am finally in counseling. Talking to a stranger about the loss has been incredibly powerful for me. I feel like I can take a deep breath, again without wanting to fall apart with each exhale. I know my grief journey isn’t over, but I finally feel on track and know that in time, I will heal.
I was prepared to lose a grandparent, preparing for the loss of a parent but I was not prepared to lose Ricky. I had visions of a lifetime together; me, my sister, Ricky and my partner all raising kids together, being aunts and uncles together, and creating so many amazing laugh-filled memories together. And in a moment, all those dreams were shattered. A lifetime was gone, and a new reality quickly set in. We were without a piece of the puzzle and there will never be a time where we don't miss him but simply learn to live without him.
When that next BIG loss comes, I will prioritize my grief as an essential part of the process. I will make sure to take those much-needed moments to mourn what the loss means to me before tackling the grief of others. I will remember that my personal relationship with the deceased is just as important as those around me, regardless of how others may make me feel. And I will find time to cherish that relationship, honor it, and find a way to reconcile those feelings as best as I can.
Don’t let the invisible hierarchy of grief dictate your grief or the level of empathy or compassion you show to others who are experiencing a great loss in their lives. Learn to approach loss with empathy and not showmanship. If you see a posting on social media, please don’t view someone else’s tragedy as an opportunity to receive more likes with a hurtful but “funny” comment. Death is hard but my God, grieving is much harder.
Felicia Sabartinelli is an actress, artist, poet, and writer who currently resides in Tampa Bay, Florida. Felicia's writing has been featured online & in-print with Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Dr. Oz's The Good Life, Country Living, Women's Day, USA Today, Huff Post, Elephant Journal, Thirty on Tap, The Things, ETC. She was also a featured speaker for a Colorado TEDx event in 2018. As an actress, Felicia has appeared in a variety of plays, films, TV shows, and commercials. Her short play, "The Light & Dark of Matter" was chosen for the Manhattan Rep. Theatre's Short Play Series in March 2018 in New York City, and the WOAF (Watermelon One-Act Festival) in June 2018 in Maryland. When she is not in front of the camera, Felicia works as PA, casting assistant, & line producer for various commercial, television, and film projects. In her spare time, Felicia shares her journey with food allergies on her blog; Ms. Allergic to Everything. She also enjoys games nights, traveling the world, and binge watching her favorite TV shows.