On February 20, Chrissy Teigen paid tribute on Instagram to baby Jack on what would have been his due date. The model, cookbook author, and mom has been open about suffering a pregnancy loss at 20 weeks, and her honesty has been a lifeline to others who’ve suffered a similar tragedy. Her honesty has also left her exposed to the worst of the Internet — to vitriol and cruelty, and now, even gatekeeping.
A number of media outlets picked up and shared Teigen’s post, and, unsurprisingly, the comments poured in. Most kind. Others not. One particular comment has been plucked out of obscurity for its specific brand of cruelty. The commentator wrote: “Poor poor girl. I don’t care for her at all and enough about your miscarriages, honey I’ve had 2 of them! You’re no different than the rest of us women.”
This comment is horrid for a number of reasons, but most relevant is the commentator’s attempt at invalidating Teigen’s grief, the attempt to set up an arbitrary threshold of suffering that includes the commentator and excludes Teigen, thereby forbidding her right to grieve. Drilled down to its most fundamental parts, this is an attempt at gatekeeping.
Urban Dictionary defines gatekeeping as, “When someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.”
Gatekeeping grief is vile. It’s a nasty impulse to tell someone else that they aren’t suffering enough to deserve sympathy. It’s telling them their hurt doesn’t count. Gatekeeping turns grief into a competition, turns loss and suffering into a competition. Which it isn’t. Ever.
I became a person intimately acquainted with grief three years ago. Since then, I’ve learned a number of truths related to grief and gatekeeping.
One, grief is not a competition. There’s no award for the person who suffered the most. No prize to recover for suffering the most.
Two, grief isn’t finite. It’s not a limited resource. One person’s big grief does not mean yours must now be smaller. One person saying “this is hard” does not mean your suffering is any less hard. There’s space for both lived experiences to be hard, to be acknowledged, to be heard.
Three, the phrase “at least” when it comes to loss is simply invalidating. “At least he didn’t suffer.” “At least you can still get pregnant.” It’s an indirect, often well-intentioned, way of gatekeeping, of telling someone their loss doesn’t meet that high threshold, so they cannot or should not be sad.
The overarching theme on all those lessons: We don’t get to gate keep grief. Not Chrissy Teigen’s or anyone else’s. There’s space for us all to grieve.
Gatekeeping grief is not just a cruel act toward one griever. It ends up affecting all of us. And here’s how: sharing stories is a powerful act. When someone — a celebrity like Teigen or otherwise — chooses to share something so private publicly, she’s extending a hand to dozens, thousands, maybe millions of others who’ve experienced similar suffering and who can’t find the words or don’t yet have the strength to face their trauma.
The commentator wrote “You’re no different than the rest of us women.” This misses the point. Sharing your story is not meant to lift yourself onto a pedestal. Teigen isn’t writing to be a martyr, to collect attention. (And by the way, even if she was, if that’s what she needed in her grief, to help her heal just a little, then she should be permitted to seek that out without judgment.) Teigen is writing to share her story, and in doing so she’s telling countless numbers of people that they aren’t alone.
Loss, grief, the aftermath of trauma, is so incredibly isolating. That moment you realize you aren’t alone, that someone else in the world understands even a glimmer of your lived experience, is sometimes the difference between a breath and a sob. It might be the lifeline you need when you’re drowning.
Making space for one person to share their story doesn’t mean you can’t tell your story. In fact, it makes it easier to find the words. Sharing your story creates more space for more stories, more voices. Gatekeeping grief, shutting out one story, does the opposite. It compresses the space for voices. It isolates.
When you’ve lived through loss, have become intimately acquainted with grief, the world looks different. Empathy often walks hand in hand with grief.
Gate keeping grief may be a result of having been invalidated in the past — lashing out now at another because someone somewhere told you your suffering wasn’t enough. It’s a cruel cycle that needs to stop. The way to stop is with that empathy. Gate keeping grief doesn’t make you more deserving of something. But it reveals a lot about your capacity for empathy — or lack thereof.
Grief is personal. Suffering is personal. No two people experience any of it the same way. There are an infinite amount of ways to grieve as there are an infinite amount of ways to love. As such, there exists space for all of the ways to grief. Moreover, there exists enough empathy for everyone to take as much as they need.