Notes from West London

The hierarchy of misery

There is no hierarchy of misery. Bad things happen. There is no linear relationship between the things that happen to people and how they cope with them. The worst thing that ever happened to you is the worst thing that ever happened to you. Losing a parent in your 30s or 40s can affect you as deeply as losing a parent in childhood.

I use the phrase “hierarchy of misery” often, even though there is no such thing. You can’t create a league table of the very worst things that have happened to people but if you could it might include disease, dementia, psychiatric problems, debilitating conditions, accidents, violence and death in all its forms. It might not include miscarriage, which is the worst thing that that my wife and I have been through in our married life: four miscarriages before we had our two healthy children. We have not been through the same things as other people we know, who wanted children but couldn’t have them, or who lost children at birth. If there were a hierarchy of misery then giving birth to a dead child would place you pretty near the top.

We had very welcome guests over the weekend, a friend and her two children, who came for lunch, stayed for dinner and left after 9pm, over 15 hours after her 9 year old daughter had had to wake up for a sporting event. Her son and daughter are the same ages as ours (11 year old boys, 9 year old girls). We have known the family since just before the boys were born. We learnt, after they were born, that there had been a previous pregnancy, ending in a still-birth. Our friend’s husband, after many years of serious illness, died last year. And the four grandparents, who were alive when the grandchildren were born, died between 2009 and 2011. It’s been a tough few years, and there’s no need to put these sad events into any kind of order, no need to ask stupid questions like “What’s worse? Losing a husband, or giving birth to a dead child?”

During the afternoon and evening, when we laughed a lot, and occasionally I got something in my eye (that’s my excuse anyway) I recalled someone I knew at university (I’ll call her Elizabeth) telling me how tough things were for her father. We were at a party sometime in the late 1980s, a few of us were catching up, and this was her story. Her father had worked for the same merchant bank for many years. He became Chairman of the bank, and although he was promised a chauffeur-driven limousine to take him to work every day he had to share it with someone else. He only had use of the car for three days a week and the other two days he had to take a taxi. “It’s just so unfair,” she said, “Daddy’s worked so hard, and he was promised that he would have a driver every day, and now he has to share it with someone else. It’s heart-breaking.” Maybe it was, for her. I kept quiet. My dad was still working on a building site at the time, and has still never been in a chauffeur-driven car. It’s not heart-breaking, we just lead different lives. I haven’t seen Elizabeth for over 20 years. I wonder if she has encountered anything more tragic in that time than Daddy being deprived of a chauffeur-driven limo twice a week.

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