Making a List - How the Bereaved Keep Score

When I visualize my grief underbelly it’s on the set of a film noir —
preferably with a light mist or drizzle. Photo Credit: Movie Still from Third Man

There is a grief underbelly: a dark and damp place swirling with thoughts that many grievers have but are too ashamed to admit. If these thoughts are ever spoken aloud it’s almost never in every-day conversation with ordinary people.

Instead, you may hear them uttered in the safe spaces of grief groups or in an honest conversation between grievers when they feel free of judgment. This is where you realize that the thoughts you were previously ashamed of are actually not at all shameful.

One of the more common reactions to a life-altering event is keeping score. The bereaved maintain a mental list of the people who have not done what was expected (like those guilty of sympathy by proxy) or those who have let them down in whatever way, and they will waste a lot of mental energy thinking about these people.

Illusration credit: author

If there were ever a time in your life where you shouldn’t be keeping score, it’s when you’re grieving. When you are deep in grief your brain physically hurts — processing everything that comes with your loss is exhausting and overwhelming. But in one of life’s cruel little jokes, it so happens that living in the wake of a personal disaster is when the impulse to keep score is absolutely irresistible. You just can’t help it.

I felt guilty that I had many texts/emails/voicemails/cards that I couldn’t/didn’t want to respond to and confused about why I was hung up on the people who I hadn’t heard from.

When it comes to relationships with friends and families, I am generally not much of a scorekeeper. I never kept tabs on gift-giving, who-called-first, who went to the party…but in grief, all of my normal social habits are out of whack. I have a long list of people who have ‘wronged’ me, and I spend a substantial amount of time thinking about them.

In my journal, about a month after my sister died, I wrote, “There are so many people who have reached out in so many wonderful ways and all I can think about are the people who haven’t…” This obsession left me feeling tremendously guilty and confused.

I felt guilty that I had many texts/emails/voicemails/cards that I couldn’t/didn’t want to respond to and confused about why I was hung up on the people who I hadn’t heard from.

My list zeroed in on a few candidates — a former coworker, a sprinkling of extended family members, and the rest were the people who knew me as a child. People that I was barely friends with 20 years ago as I awkwardly stumbled through high school became part of my everyday life as I tallied through who had/hadn’t gotten in touch.

I wish their siblings had died…not mine

That girl from math class who contacted me out of the blue one day about buying skincare products? Eerily silent now that shit has hit the fan. My 3rd grade best friend? I guess she thinks that my sister dying unexpectedly wasn’t a big deal because she congratulated me when my daughter was born but vanished 10 months later when my sister collapsed. I now hate these people with a fiery passion. It doesn’t help that many of them have siblings my sister’s age, three years was a popular spread and there were dozens of families from my hometown with children who matched my sister and me.

I wish their siblings had died…not mine (that’s another common sentiment among the bereaved that they’re often reluctant to admit).

In my experience, I’ve found that not only do I keep score, but I also never forget the score. When my dad died in 2004, I had a disappointing experience with my friend’s mom. She knew my dad was sick, she knew he died, she was out of town when it happened, and then she never mentioned it. Since this essay is all about keeping score, I’ll happily point out that I went to her dad’s funeral in the late 90s. I was a self-absorbed teenager, but I still went to her dad’s funeral. A man who died of old age...outliving my dad by a solid 30 years.

And now, many years later, when I hear her name the first thing I think is that she let me down tremendously. She ignored my dead dad and everything that came with it. I don’t think of the times I was welcomed into her house for sleepovers, played with her kids, or the dozens of times she drove me home. I think about how I went through an incredibly traumatic experience and she never bothered to say anything.

When Scorekeeping Infiltrates

Scorekeeping can come in a variety of different forms and might show up somewhere where you’d least expect it.

During the winter holidays, I took great pleasure in ranking holiday cards. At the top of the fridge (the place of honor), were cards that had a note acknowledging the juxtaposition of a bright and cheery piece of mail wishing me happy holidays when I felt so far from happy during the worst year of my life.

Unrelated to grief, but I also gave high marks to cards that listed the woman in the family first as opposed to the traditional order of man’s name, woman’s name, child #1, child #2 (I have a thing about gender norms).

At the bottom of the fridge were cards wishing me a wonderful Christmas with no acknowledgment of my sister’s death, cards with typos (stop adding an apostrophe s to your last name, friends!), and those that weren’t recyclable (I also have a thing about the environment).

One card had an extra handwritten note that said, “I bet this Christmas will be magical.” That card went right in the trash. It’s clear that the sender either forgot that Alison was dead, or perhaps thought that I would be over it 4 months and three weeks later.

My 2018 goal is to resist the urge to rank holiday cards on my fridge. Photo Credit:

My husband pointed out the flaw in this system, that it wasn’t fair for me to be angry with someone for thinking of me and my family and including us on their card list in the first place. I recognize it wasn’t particularly nice to rank family and friends — to pit them against each other when really they were all trying to be kind and thoughtful. I attribute the card ranking as another, albeit strange, manifestation of my grief.

Why do we keep score?

My best guess is that it’s a concrete place to direct your anger over what has happened to your loved one and to you.

As an added bonus, your feelings can be directed towards a living person, as opposed to being angry at a situation or even at the person who died. You can’t change the events that led to the death of your loved one, but you can direct your anger towards people who you think have wronged you. It’s a concrete and easy place to fixate your attention.


When I look back at my list, the people all have one thing in common. I expected something from them and they failed to meet my expectations. The old coworker was a good friend, and I was just so surprised that he didn’t bother to say anything because a couple of years earlier he was supportive when I had a miscarriage (and started crying uncontrollably at work).

People from my childhood knew my sister. I had no expectations for college classmates to reach out because they’d never met her, but my elementary school classmates knew my sister when we were little and I thought they would’ve cared.

I believe that forgiveness is possible. Anyone on my list could reach out now and I would forgive them. I would appreciate the gesture because I do know that it is hard to know what to say, and I also know that it’s easy to think that your words don’t matter. I know because I’ve thought that many times and have stayed silent when I shouldn’t have.

I am sure that there are people out there who forget the score eventually or even regret keeping score in the first place. There are those who move on — live and let live.

But I also know that there are those of us who hold onto that scorecard with a white-knuckled fist. I’m one of the latter.

Have you been keeping score? Are there people on your list that you’re surprised to see? Did you eventually forgive the people who let you down? Do you have any tips for throwing the metaphorical scorecard into the metaphorical fireplace (I could certainly use them)?


Back to blog


Claire – thank you for your message and I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. Losing someone unexpectedly is so traumatic – this type of loss leads you (or – at least me – but I think a lot of people think this way) to the “is this my reality? How can this be reality?” mentality.

Unfortunately (so unfortunately!) its been my experience that people are desperate to avoid inflicting pain, and then often avoid saying anything. Having to coach people on how to be supportive while your grieving is another one of the terrible facts about grief. Have you tried using social media, or email, to help your family know what you need? Of course there’s always the direct route – good, old fashioned conversation – but I am still too delicate and often reduce to tears so I’m not able to do that just yet.

As a daughter/sibling, I’ve noticed that folks often use the parent/spouse as a representative of sympathy (e.g., folks will tell my mom that they’re sorry – or me (but probably because I’ve been so vocal through this blog) – but very few people have been in touch with my younger brother).

Are you in your 20s/30s? There’s an organization called The Dinner Party ( that is a gathering place for young adults who have experienced loss. There is a table in JP that I belong to – but I’m sure there are many others that are closer to you depending on where you are. I’m putting together a post of resources (books, groups, social media pages, blogs, podcasts) that have been useful to me – I hope there will be something there that will provide you comfort.

Thinking of you,


Hi Kellyn, thank you so much for sharing some of your grief journey with us through this blog and Instagram. First, I want to say how sorry I am about the loss of your sister – as I read your blog, I’m so struck by the special relationship between the two of you. I have not lost a sibling, but I lost my Dad quite suddenly 8 months ago, and I have felt a lot of shame and guilt about my own score-keeping….and yet, I find it almost a compulsion to do it. I have found it quite hard to let go of some of my resentment towards those family members and friends who haven’t said a word to me directly since my Dad died – and even some of those who were there for us when he died, but since I returned to Boston after the shiva and memorial, haven’t checked in on me at all. We even had a tree planting ceremony in his honor last month, using some of his ashes in a living urn in a spot special to him, and my four cousins who joined us for that literally didn’t bring up my Dad once or ask how we were doing the whole weekend we were there. It was so bizarre, being there for the express purpose of scattering his ashes and yet feeling the wall of being unable to discuss the loss or the person who is no longer here. Two of the cousins in that family literally have said absolutely nothing to us since he died. And I have, at times, felt so very petty keeping score like this, and consequently avoiding seeing quite a lot of our extended family….but it’s a relief to know that it’s not just me and is part of the grieving process. Thank you for writing about this little-discussed aspect of grieving, and love to you as you carry on.


I’m so sorry that you have lost your dad, Maggie – but I am thankful that you have fond some connection here. I will say that there were a few people on my list from when I had written this on April who have reached out to me and all has been forgiven. But there are others on the list who are only digging themselves deeper (ugh – forgive the terrible metaphor!)


I wish, I wish I had tips, but all I can add is that I completely relate — I’m so angry at my score keeping but it keeps popping up day after day. In some ways, it might be that difficult life events reveal one’s true colors and we might be too grief-striken to be able to handle any more disappointments and like you said, they’re easier and more tangible to direct anger toward.

I found you from the Cup of Jo comments on grief. Thank you so much for your blog. I just lost my dad unexpectedly and he was my everything – best friend, biggest advocate, my most favorite person in all the world. I’ve found some comfort in the honesty you share about your losses – so thank you, thank you. I am so deeply sorry about your sister and your dad.


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