Consoling the Consolers or Why Hijacking Other’s Grief Is Thoughtless

by admin on February 20, 2017

My mother died the end of January after over a decade of dementia and living in a senior care facility.   She was one of the lucky persons with “happy dementia” and up until a week before her death she was still being cheerfully gregarious with total strangers even while waiting hours in the Emergency Room waiting area.   She was one of those “adorable” old ladies, who, if she had been online, would have charmed thousands with her viral videos.  Her death was peaceful and quick.   Just the way she wanted it to be.

After my father’s death in 2010, I knew I wanted a more subdued announcement of Mom’s death.  In the days after my dad’s death,  people offered condolences with reassuring pats on the arm or back, telling me they were sorry, etc.   I know they meant well but it began to feel like I was walking through a grief gauntlet where every touch or sympathetic look was enough to start the tears all over again.   So, we limited the information to family and close friends.  There was no mention on Facebook.

Even with that limited circle of people being aware, there were still people who responded to that information in ways I found discouraging and disappointing. On the good side, one close friend invited me to lunch and then let me talk about my mom uninterrupted.  Grieving people need to retell the story numerous times to begin to accept the reality.   Another good friend announced that she was bringing us dinner and even though I didn’t feel like I needed a meal, it turned out to be comforting.   She called later in the week to tell me she was in my area and asked if I wanted some company. I didn’t but I appreciate her soft kindness.

But two other friends were decidedly thoughtless in how they interacted with me.   Both of them, within minutes of me talking of my mom’s death, redirected the topic of conversation to a discussion of their mothers’ deaths, both of which occurred  during the summer of 2016. They were clearly still grieving their losses.  In the one case, the mother’s death had not been peaceful or without family contentions so I sat there listening to sad details of her death for a lengthy time.   In the second case, I had barely spoken three minutes about my own mother when the conversation shifted, not by my doing, to being about my friend’s mother’s death. Had I visited her grave yet?   No, I had not.   Would I like to, right now, and see the new marker?  I love my friend, recognized she needed this and I felt I had no real option to decline so we walked over to the cemetery and we spent the next 30 minutes wandering through graves.  All I could think of was how I was going to need to research and purchase a headstone soon.

Intellectually I understand that these women were probably trying to connect with me in a “I’m in the same boat as you” kind of way.   The difference is that they had 5 months to mourn and process their grief, I had only 5 days.   I felt like my grief had been hijacked because I ended up consoling people about their not-so-fresh grief while I was still dazed.  I found it wearying and discouraging.

I believe that when we experience these acts of thoughtlessness by others that there is a practical lesson to be learned, namely to know what not to do in future situations.   From an Ehell perspective, we should walk away from these experiences saying to ourselves,  “I hope and endeavor to never treat someone that way,”  while embracing the positive kindnesses as good examples to emulate.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Marie February 20, 2017 at 5:28 am

You can say:
“I am sorry, I understand you went through a similar experience, but my mother died five days ago. I am very sorry, but I am not ready to talk right now. I hope you understand, but I need some time to myself.”

That way you politely end the conversation, and subtly let them know why. Stay polite, they probably don’t know what to say, and fall back on a similar experience in order to say something. Unless they’re really self centered, they probably didn’t mean to hijack the conversation.

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Dee February 20, 2017 at 11:34 am

Marie – Your first paragraph is good advice for someone who does not want to discuss his/her grief, but since OP does want to discuss it with her friends it wouldn’t work for her. If her friends are not open to hearing her grief then she is probably better off doing exactly what you’ve written, though. Different friends offer different things, and it’s possible these ones are just not what she needs right now.

In her case, she may need to simply spend more time with those who are better at listening and spend less time with those who are needing to be heard, at least until the initial stage of grieving has passed. I hope, though, that she spent time listening to her grieving friends since they lost their mothers last year; otherwise, she can’t really expect the same from them, can she?

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Marie February 20, 2017 at 5:44 pm

Dee – and that’s what it’s meant for. I thought that the first sentence made it clear that this was to be said to the people who are hijacking. 🙂

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AS February 20, 2017 at 5:40 am

First of all, my heartfelt condolences for your mother’s death.

About the friends, I think they were not meaning to, but ended up bringing in their mothers. Unless they are serial grief-hijackers, just get back to talking to them if you feel like, once your grief is has settled down a bit. It is not right on their parts, but as you said, learn what not to do in the future when you are on the other side.

On a slightly different. It’s, one type of grief hijackers I found to be the strangest after my mother died were the ones who would start crying when they called up to offer condolences. These people didn’t even know my mother! It was so tiresome to have to console other people about my mother’s death! I admit that I did cut of this one friend from my life eventually, as he kept bringing it up every time I spoke to him, but never bothered to actually call me to cheer me up and my hubby and I had been proactively doing stuff with him for months before that, as he was suffering from (not medically-diagnosed) depression. My mom’s death b came another reason for him to be depressed, and we were not the right people to console him anymore!

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Huh February 20, 2017 at 2:23 pm

Full disclosure: I am an easy cry-er. And no matter how hard I will myself not to do it, it wins out. And when I see someone I care about cry, many times it’ll set it off on me too.

And so I have cried when giving someone condolences. It has been when I really care about the mourner – I feel so terrible that they are going through this and cry for them – or when I was close to the one who passed on. When a friend of mine passed and I saw her parents for the first time after she had gone – I was grieving my friend and I cannot imagine what her parents were going through and how crushing it is for them, so I cried while trying to give my condolences.

So maybe whoever was crying offering you condolences just geninuely care about you and felt terrible about your mother’s passing because they knew how much she meant to you.

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AS February 22, 2017 at 5:07 pm

@Huh- yes, I understand that. I have had friends who cried when they heard the news. But THEY were the ones consoling me, and not the other way around. This guy would keep bursting into tears, even when I didn’t bring up the topic, and they I had to console him with statements like “I’m over it”(I wasn’t), “that’s okay” (it isn’t), etc. It was painful enough that I stopped talking to him.

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o_gal February 20, 2017 at 7:23 am

Your last sentence is very good, but I disagree with one word in the sentence before that. These people were not “thoughtless”. As you said, they were trying to connect with you, and trying to let you know that you are not alone. They may have been awkward and clumsy, but I would not call it thoughtless.

Every person grieves in their own way. I’ve known people who were still in severe grief years after, while others are only there for a short time. It is incredibly hard, almost impossible, to know how to approach a person because you do not know how they are grieving. I think that being in severe grief allows a bit of selfishness, although not rudeness. Because the emotions are so raw, I give extreme behavior passes to everyone who is stuck there.

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Kate February 20, 2017 at 11:47 am

I disagree, I think they were being thoughtless. If they had really been thinking about the OP, instead of themselves, they would have asked her what she wanted and would make her feel better, rather than doing things like taking her on a 30 minute graveyard trip and talked about their mothers, not hers.

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Vicki February 21, 2017 at 8:42 am

“Thoughtless” is exactly right, I think: they knew they wanted to help, but didn’t think about how what they were saying would affect the person they wanted to help.

The column is aimed at other people who want to help, so they won’t make the same mistake. It’s true that we often don’t think (or have time to think) about such things in the moment, so it’s a good idea to think about what to do beforehand. Thinking ahead of time is why we don’t say “Oh good, you’re finally free of him” when someone is crying after breaking up with someone we disliked, and we don’t immediately launch into a list of the ex’s flaws unless asked. It’s better to listen, and offer a cup of tea, and ask if they’d rather talk about it or be distracted by hearing about our cats.

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Jinx February 20, 2017 at 7:52 am

I’m glad you were able to find comfort in a few of your friends.

This is a hard one. I think that overall, people try to be helpful… and occasionally succeed. Death is difficult for many, and so personal, it’s hard to know exactly how to act or what to do for people. For me, since you have not come asking for sympathy, only asking for advice/opinions on this, I’ll do exactly that.

I think that regardless of how recently a mother died, it can have a profound effect on people. Regretfully, a mother’s death will re-open wounds for those who lost their own mothers, as you have seen. Even it it was 6 months, a year, it’s impossible to put a time line on grief. You grieve for as long as you need to.

Grief is not logical; it does not produce clear thinking. I think that your friend did go over with the idea to help you grieve, then inadvertently asked for your help grieving. It does put you in an awkward position. I’m no stranger to grief, but we need to admit it is a selfish act. Which does not mean it’s unnecessary, or that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think it makes it hard to be more selfless when you are experiencing it. I’m touched at your ability to be so generous with your friend. I don’t know if I could have done the same, in the same scenario.

I think it’s important to take time for yourself, but most importantly, tell others exactly what you need as you are able. If you feel that you need to “retell the story numerous times”, you may need to literally tell that to your friends. When I have grieved, I want to be as distracted sometimes, sometimes I want to cry. Again, it’s all very personal, and I think we all react differently.

Your friends clearly mean well, and seem to want to help. Tell them precisely what you need from them, and hopefully you will find more comfort.

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AMC February 20, 2017 at 8:33 am

I’m very sorry for your loss.

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E.H. February 20, 2017 at 8:37 am

Everyone grieves differently, and unless you tell people, no one is able to read your mind to tell how you grieve. You need to tell people if they’re entering an uncomfortable spot in your grieving process. People are trying their best.

I recently lost my dog, and I hate the rainbow bridge poem. I loathe it because I honestly don’t believe there’s anything after death. My dog is gone and I don’t need ridiculous platitudes from well meaning people. That said, I understand that people feel the need to provide sympathy and what they’re doing is well meaning. So I say “thank you” and move on, which is probably what you should do.

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admin February 20, 2017 at 9:39 am

The Victorians had a system for dealing with mourning that spanned a year. The grieving person wore black which signaled others of the need for kindness and decorum. We no longer have Victorian sensibilities in regards to mourning but I do think that it is commonsense to understand that someone who lost a family member just days earlier is not in the best condition to be hearing other people’s tales of grieving woes, regardless of how they process their grief.

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Dee February 20, 2017 at 11:22 am

Having a way to formally acknowledge a death and a set grieving period, as was done in times past, did help friends to navigate the socially tricky early days after a death. However, it was extremely constraining for the grieving family, who may have already done their grieving before the death and/or been quite relieved by the family member’s demise but still had to curtail all pleasurable activity for a long period of time. As in the OP’s submission, such conventions don’t take into account the differing needs of people experiencing the death of a close family member.

Neither my husband nor I openly grieved our parents’ deaths. We weren’t interested in discussing it with anyone but very close friends. We weren’t grieving, exactly, and pretending to be distraught was too silly to contemplate, so we were very happy to hear of others’ grieving woes if it meant we didn’t have to discuss ours. Every situation is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all. The OP needed something different from what her friends thought she needed, and they needed something from her she didn’t think she should have to give. I don’t think either party was right or wrong, just not good company for each other at the time. That’s all.

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Harry February 20, 2017 at 12:58 pm

Oh Dear Admin,
I could not agree more with this. My Mom and Dad passed away 1.5 years from one another; cancer and suicide respectively. I was a living, breathing raw nerve, and if I said or did anything inappropriate I probably didn’t recognize it, but if someone were to have seen the black arm band, they might extend me a bit of leeway. And for these two women who highjacked your grief, please don’t hold it against them, your loss just stirred up their own emotions and they didn’t deal with it very well.

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Lara February 20, 2017 at 2:06 pm

I think you’re exactly right about this, admin. And sometimes people wasn’t so badly to connect with the grieving person that they’ll go to great lengths to get there!

I remember returning to work after my father died quite suddenly. Most people were very kind, but one co-worker launched into a story about how someone at his church died recently in the same fashion, and how horrible it was because he left behind a young family…Thanks? I’m not sure how that relates to me? I didn’t really have any response for him, but he thankfully left me alone soon after.

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crella February 21, 2017 at 10:38 pm

I agree. It just makes the whole situation more painful.

I am sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences.

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Emmy February 20, 2017 at 9:46 am

I am sorry for the loss of your mother. I don’t think what the OP’s friend did was right, but I also have some sympathy for her would-be consolers. Five months is not a long time and the pain of their mothers’ deaths would still be raw and the OP’s mothers death may have brought back those feelings for them. However, I do agree that the should have focused mainly on the OP’s pain and not on their own during that time. If a close friend is unable to offer emotional support due to their own hurt, they can offer other support if they feel it is appropriate (like making a meal, sending a card, buying flowers, donating in mother’s memory, etc.). I guess the take away etiquette lesson is that a fairly recent loss of your own may make it difficult to provide a grieving person with the emotional support they need. Be careful to add to their burden with your own – if you are unable to do that, it is not rude to offer support or sympathy in another way.

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Heather February 20, 2017 at 10:14 am

A few months after my mother died, a friend’s mother also died. The service was to be held in the same chapel as the service for my mom. I thought that I would be OK… it had been, if I’m not mistaken, at least 3 – 4 months since my mother’s service. But I found myself in a middle pew, really getting emotional. The death of another mother… so close to my own mother’s death… finding myself back at the same chapel. But… I realised that this day was not about my grief. It was certainly OK for me to feel this flood of emotion (not to mention understandable)… but I was not the “star of the show”, so to speak. There was no way I was going to hijack this occasion. I fumbled around in my purse for old crumbly bits of dusty kleenex… bit my lip until I practically drew blood… sang songs in my head… and managed (just barely, but I did manage) to hold it together. I would have been mortified if I had taken the attention and made it about me. And my grief was still relatively fresh. I agree that grief is a solitary and fluid process. But compassion and empathy are things we all must show, even if we have to suck it up to do so.

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kingsrings February 20, 2017 at 12:16 pm

I have also been in the position several times of holding back years at a funeral because I didn’t want to take away attention from the deceased’s family’s needs. Boy, is that hard to stop from crying when the emotions are so strong. It’s a struggle. But I would never want to be accused of being thoughtless to the family, so I fight to hold them back. I don’t know if this is right or wrong.

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Cat February 20, 2017 at 11:11 am

I have ceased to be surprised at what people will do both prior to, and following, a death. The ones that left me gaping during my mother’s battle with cancer and her death are these: her friend who called every day to “see how you are doing” and to describe in graphic detail her sister’s death from cancer, “She died fully conscious and screaming!”, which mother did not really want to hear, but lacked the courage to tell her.
My personal horror came from my maternal grandmother. Mother had chosen to die at home. Five minutes after her death, I went to my room to change clothes when there was a knock at my door. There stood my grandmother, with two of her only daughter’s dresses in her hands, “Well,” she demanded, ” What do you want her buried in?”
Lastly, there was the total stranger who came up to me at my mother’s wake to tell me I was being very unChristian by crying as a true Christian would be happy to know that her mother was in Heaven. My first thought was that she did not know mother very well and the second was that she was blithely unaware that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb even though He believed in an immediate resurrection for his friend. A true Christian would never try to out-Christian Christ. I still regret not telling her that.

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Cheryl February 20, 2017 at 4:44 pm

I will have to remember the out-Christian Christ remark.

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Emmy February 20, 2017 at 8:52 pm

The Bible also tells us grieve with those who grieve – not to be a smug, self-righteous jerk to somebody who is grieving and use Christianity as an excuse for that behavior.

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SadieMae February 20, 2017 at 11:18 pm

I am a bit of a blabbermouth, especially when I’m feeling upset. I know I have sometimes said the wrong things. And so I try to be understanding when others do, too. But I utterly fail to understand why someone would tell the “fully conscious and screaming” story to a friend who was dying of the same disease (!!!) or what could make someone think it was okay to criticize a daughter for crying at her own mother’s funeral. Just can’t imagine. What could possibly have possessed those people?

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Ashley February 20, 2017 at 12:31 pm

I hate these sorts of people, I really do.

I recognize that everyone grieves differently, but you also have to realize how to empathize without dominating the conversation, and when gory details aren’t appropriate.

If your mother died five months ago, and your friend’s mother died yesterday, it’s okay to say something like “I remember how hard it was when my mom died, so if you need anything, just let me know”. Don’t take over with all the details, ugh.

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JD February 20, 2017 at 12:51 pm

A friend of mine lost her mother several years after I lost mine. It was much easier for me to console her and listen to her, having had time to get my grief out already, but in only a year or less after my mother’s death, I was still pretty raw about it, so I understand how those friends easily deflected to their own mothers’ deaths. What I don’t understand is why they didn’t pull themselves up short and say something about being sorry, they didn’t mean to make it all about them, etc. Someone who is a week or less away from the death of a close family member should surely be given the floor, so to speak, for her grief and comfort,and our own sorrows tucked away for a while. My friend had lots of questions for me because I’d been through it already, so for that reason, we did discuss my grief somewhat, but only in the context of her questions.

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Huh February 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm

This is one reason why I never know what to do when someone dies. Generally, “I’m sorry for your loss” is good, but I’ve known people who don’t like that – Why are YOU sorry, you didn’t do anything. Some people want to talk about their loved one, others do not. Some people want you to talk about their loved one, others do not. Some people want to talk about “normal” things, or have you talk about normal things to distract them, others see that as disrespectful. Some people take comfort in thinking about afterlife, or religious things, others absolutely do not. Some people would love someone cooking for them, others want to get back into their routine ASAP. Some people want flowers, some people think that’s a waste. As others have said, it’s so personal, in that different people want different ways of paying respects/consolation and may not even be able to predict how they will react and/or what they want/need until they are in the thick of the situation, that I think it is truly one of those “it’s the thought that counts” times.

Not too long ago, I was a neutral party of an estrangement, where someone died right after becoming estranged from a set of family members. When it went down, it was ugly. The estranged parties had no idea what to do – should they come and pay respects to the bereaved? Send flowers? They asked me – I had no idea what to tell them. On one hand, the family might appreciate the gesture. On the other hand, the family very well may throw any flowers they send away and have them kicked out (and honestly that would have been my bet) because of how nasty the last words they had with the deceased was. So they chose not to go so they wouldn’t further upset the bereaved. Every single time I see the bereaved, they complain how those estranged members never came to the funeral. :/

Are you sure your friends really did “process and grieve” their losses from the summer? I had three deaths happen in my family within a few months. I thought I had processed and grieved the losses. I had a breakdown roughly about five months later and could barely function.

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Victoria February 22, 2017 at 11:11 am

Huh, the definition of sorry is “feeling sorrow or regret”. An apology is “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure”. Someone saying “I’m sorry for your loss” means the person feels sorrow for your emotional pain.

Admin, I am sorry for your loss. I think the thoughtless mourners were trying to commiserate, but they did go about it completely in the wrong way by making it about them rather than you. I think you could have begged off the cemetery visit by telling them you weren’t ready, but going along with them and letting them vent their sorrow was a very kind thing to do, especially in light of your circumstances.

I do hope you’re doing well, and I hope the other people in your life are making things easier on you than those two did.

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Victoria February 22, 2017 at 11:14 am

Also, it feels strange to be offering condolences without offering a pie and/or casserole at the same time. Rest assured that if we knew each other in person I’d have a pie in hand to go with the sympathy.

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Writer of Wrongs February 20, 2017 at 4:02 pm

“Grieving people need to retell the story numerous times to begin to accept the reality.”

This sentence really stood out to me, and it explained something. My mother has repeatedly told me some particular facet or another of Dad’s death – something he said or did – even though I was right there with them. I do NOT talk about those last few days, and hearing about it tears me apart all over again, putting me right back there by that hospital bed.

OP, perhaps this is what happened with your friends. Hearing you talk about losing your mother may flash them back so that their own grief is as fresh and raw as it was the moment they lost their mothers. Maybe they are not trying to ignore or detract from YOUR grief, but in that moment, they’re overwhelmed with their own, and they don’t handle it as well as Heather describes above.

Grief is a complex process. I don’t think either you or your friends are “wrong,” per se, but maybe you each are not, at this point, the best company for each other. The early stages of grief, especially, are by necessity very self-centered. You and these particular friends might find each other more comforting later, but right now I suspect everyone’s loss is too fresh to look outside themselves and their own pain.

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NostalgicGal February 20, 2017 at 4:24 pm

When my father died, I was pretty fragile for a few weeks, by six weeks I was able to cope. It varies a lot between people. My condolences for your loss, OP.

Five days, you were still definitely in the raw period. Glad you had a few friends to ‘pull you out’. At five months I can still see the others dealing with it, but. At five days they should have left the OP alone!

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Pat February 20, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Yes, it’s hard to know exactly what is the “right” thing to say or do. We all make mistakes. Hopefully, OP will remember that her friends’ intentions were good and try in future not to make the same mistakes herself.

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Rebecca February 20, 2017 at 5:04 pm

I wonder if I’ve been guilty of this. My father passed away last summer. And then several people I knew also lost their fathers. It’s difficult not to talk about your own when with friends who are in the same boat. It’s like, suddenly I’m in the same club, whereas before, losing a parent was completely foreign to me and it was difficult to know what to say to someone who had lost one. But I have probably also inadvertently redirected conversations to my own losses in the belief that it was a “you see, I get it” kind of way. I’ll try to be more aware now. In the meantime, for the OP, I’d think it perfectly OK to say, “I know you’re still grieving the loss of your parent, but right now I can’t face discussing that” or some variant of that.

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livvy17 February 20, 2017 at 5:26 pm

I’m so sorry for you loss, Admin.

I’m also sorry that you felt that your friends were hijacking your time of mourning; there are certainly people who try to make every situation about themselves. As you acknowledge, though, it may be that these friends generally thought they were well-meaning, trying to commune with you, even if that effort was ill-timed, or not very sensitive to your feelings. Grief seems to be as individual a process as Love, so it’s very hard to judge how we might best help our friends, and perhaps we misstep at times. I hope you’ll be able to forgive your friends their intentional thoughtlessness. Thanks for the reminder to the rest of us, that we should try to remember to be extra sensitive to “read” the needs of the grieving, as it’s a very unique situation for each person, we must be vigilant and adapt.

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Lynette February 20, 2017 at 7:39 pm

Jeanne,

Am I correct in reading this as your own personal post? If so, I want to acknowledge your sharing a highly personal story with us, fresh in your grief.

Regardless, I do believe that the friends in this case may not usually be the sort to always divert attention back to themselves, but rather, as the author acknowledges, still lost in their own somewhat recent grief.

The thoughtlessness comes in their lack of considering that their friend was experiencing the greater trauma. I love this article — perhaps it was once posted here, perhaps not — as a guide to interacting with others experiencing grief, trauma, and difficulties of all kind:

http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

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crebj February 20, 2017 at 9:26 pm

OP, I’m sorry for your loss. And I take your point.

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@LizaJane February 20, 2017 at 10:01 pm

Thoughtlessness? How charitable. Maybe the OP should wait 6 months and see how “over it” she is before judging others.

Obviously their comiseration wasn’t what she needed, but some people find it helpful.

It took me a full year after my dad died for my heart to stop hurting. Real, physical hurt.
My grief was shorter with my mom, not because we weren’t as close, but I was older, so was she and I had begun to prepare myself as I saw the signs of her aging.

Maybe this is too much about me, but I am sorry for your loss. But even though it gets easier, you never stop missing loving parents.

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admin April 3, 2017 at 7:55 am

It’s been 2 1/2 months since my mother’s death and I am certain I have the mental and emotional capacity to defer my grief in deference to another person’s more recent grief. Even in mourning there should be a kind deference to those who suffer the most recent loss by those who have had more time to come to grips with their new reality.

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Kay_L February 22, 2017 at 4:45 pm

It’s not a competition! Hopefully you aren’t still deeply grieving in six months when someone you know comes to you and wants to talk about their own parents’ death.

It’s only hijacking if the situation is supposed to be focused on the one person who died. So, it’s not ok to go on about your own mother’s death at the funeral of someone else’s mother.

But getting together with a friend?

If it’s too much for you then take your leave or express that. But, you probably need to realize that six months isn’t any time at all to “process” anything. And someone else’s experience may be much more complicated than yours. But, again, it’s not a competition.

and it’s up to the individual

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Kay_L February 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm

… To make clear what they can handle. ( sorry,accidentally hit post.

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Chaka February 24, 2017 at 1:50 pm

I understand how you feel OP. I am sorry for your loss. When my Mom passed we also didn’t post anything because Mom and I figured that anyone who really loved her had come by to see her as the cancer took two years to take her. My brother and I needed time to grieve without all the bs. I finally posted after I was ready to receive whatever my friends or her friends had to say. People will say strange things but I try to keep in mind that they care.

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Mabel March 13, 2017 at 4:57 pm

I’m so sorry you lost your mum. *hug*

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