Measuring, Scoring, + Ranking Grief

Neoliberalism tends to boil everything down to a number at some level. We measure, we compare, we assess, we score, we set SMART goals. We have all sorts of platitudes about how beneficial this quantification is: what gets measured gets improved, without goals we’ll never grow, how can you know you’re doing better now if you didn’t measure where you started, etc. The underlying premise of these platitudes is that we must always be improving or growing, which to our neoliberalized ears sounds normal and even common sensical.

I will in a later post talk about what is wrong with the assumptions themselves, but for now I want to focus on how this impulse to measure even impacts our expectations and responses to grief.

Since my husband died, I’ve noticed many examples of the impulse to measure applied to grief:

  • Some people have told me I’m “doing well,” which I think they meant as a compliment, but it implies a measuring stick by which I could be doing “not well” or “really well.”  This assumes a baseline expectation of what “well” looks like. Someone today emailed me to find out if I am doing “better” this week than I was last week (they hoped I was). All of this reminds me of the ratings my university gives for performance: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, or does not meet expectations. I suppose if I am deemed by others to be “doing well,” I am either meeting or exceeding expectations. The implication is that other people’s measure of how I’m doing should matter to me. (For the record, it does not.)
  • Then there’s the grief contest, in which someone compares my grief to theirs. People have suggested that my grief over my husband must be more or less than grief they have experienced when they lost a parent, child, sibling, friend, or pet. Another version of this is the comparison of one type of loss to another; for example, someone asked me which was worse, my divorce or being widowed, and I have to wonder why it matters to the person who asked.
  • A journal marketed to widows invited me to rate how well I am coping with my husband’s death and identify areas for “improvement.” I responded by throwing the journal across the room and cursing at it, which probably brings my coping score down significantly. The implication of rating my grief and identifying where I can improve is that I should strive to be a “better griever” today than I was yesterday—that there should be a steady upward trajectory in my coping skills.  

All of these impulses to measure grief assume at some level that grieving is a phase that will end and that if we do it well, we can get to the finish line faster. Even the grief contest question about whether a divorce or being widowed is worse hinges on this logic—if being widowed is worse, then we can figure it will take longer to get to the finish line for being widowed than for being divorced.

While I find all of these impulses to measure grief problematic, I don’t fault the individuals I’ve alluded to here. I am sure that before my husband died, I compared griefs and tried to measure grief, despite having lost my mother, several good friends and colleagues, and beloved pets. Experiencing grief doesn’t necessarily equip us to resist the neoliberal air we breathe. When something feels common sensical, we do it without thinking, and until my husband died, I responded to grief in others without thinking.

I’ll talk in a later post about the intersections of disabilities studies and grief I am finding; for now, I’ll simply note that all of the “measuring grief” comments I’ve heard echo “measuring disability” comments I’ve heard. I’ve been complimented for handling my vision impairments well, I’ve been asked do I think losing my hearing would be more or less difficult than losing my vision, and I’ve been asked to score my vision impairment coping. Whether it’s focused on disability or grief, this urge to measure and assess rests on a foundation of ableist assumptions about what’s “normal.” For example, the question about which disability or grief is worse suggests that “normal” is no disability or grief and that some forms of disability or grief are closer or further from “normal.”

My experience of the grief I’ve felt in the month since my husband died is that how it goes one day is no indication of how it will go the next. Things I can handle one day are not necessarily things I can handle the next day. Scoring myself on how I handle things or aiming to handle things better today than I did yesterday does not feel useful or helpful in any way. What does feel useful or helpful is simply allowing my grief to unfold in whatever way it needs to on a particular day. That means I spent more time in bed yesterday and the day before than I did on any day last week. It also means thinking about grieving not as a phase I am going through but as a part of my life moving forward. There is no finish line, just a long winding path into the distance.