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Is It Grief Or Suffering? Why The Difference Matters

Updated: Jan 24


In my last post, I choose the word “suffering” intentionally when I said that the thought that I was losing my chance to have the family I imagined has been the root of much of my suffering. One thing my dear friend @groundedgrief has helped me to better understand is that grief and suffering are not exactly the same. (It has been one of the tiny miracles over the last few years that, when I moved out of my house after my separation and during the first month of the pandemic, I moved right next to someone who has not only become a close friend, but is also a mom and an actual professional grief counselor. Our COVID porch chats over the past couple of years have sustained and enlightened me - check out her feed for more pearls of wisdom on grief.)


Then, I saw that Megan Devine, author It’s Ok You’re Not Ok (a modern classic of the grief cannon) and the founder of Refuge in Grief, addressed this very topic in a recent post. “Grief is healthy.” She says. “It is the sane response to the physical loss of someone, or something, you love. Suffering comes from all the crap we put on top of it.” For me, that has looked like over-analyzing the past, looking for clues for what went wrong and moments w

hen we may have righted it. It has looked like projecting worst case scenarios onto the future, and getting bogged down by my fear that they might come true.


I looked up suffering. (Because I am what @hummingbirdcandlecompany called in a beautiful post about the word “humility” a “word nerd…always looking up the root meaning of words.”) Turns out one of the oldest meanings of the word suffering is to “undergo martyrdom.” I thought that this was interesting, because one of the dangers of suffering is that it can begin to seem like part of our identity. Over time, it can be more and more difficult to see the line where our suffering ends and we begin. We begin to feel that if we stop suffering, we are somehow letting the thing we are grieving seem less important, the loss of it less life-altering.


The tricky thing is that the only way through grief is to allow ourselves room to feel it. So how do we feel our pain without wading too deep into the ocean of suffering that lies right at the edge of grief? Megan Devine has some good thoughts on that in her post. For me, one way I can try to know the difference is to ask myself if I am responding to the situation as it is, or responding to the situation as it could have been, or what I fear it might become. The former is grief, the latter is suffering.


In these moments, I try to pull myself back to the moment. But truthfully, this is hard. I sometimes find that I’ve gone through most of the day in a terrible mood before I remember to look for the difference between grief and suffering.


Perhaps you have your own tricks for knowing the difference? Would love to hear.

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