Updated: Apr 6
There's a phenomenon I've witnessed as a grieving mother that I only know to describe as grief hijacking, though I imagine this may happen to people experiencing any variety of suffering, and in another case may just as easily be referred to as pain hijacking. It can manifest in a number of ways, and I've bumped into almost every type in my two-year journey and heard about more through my support groups and connections with other bereaved parents. But no matter the particular style of the hijacker, the basis of the hijacking—from my observation—seems to always be the same.
And that basis is this: I need your pain to be about me.
Traumatic loss—whether it's child loss or another form of extreme, unexpected, or violent and shocking loss—throws the bereaved into a spotlight. We see this most obviously in the cases of highly publicized deaths, murders and school shootings, losses where families are thrust into the media. But even in less extreme cases where the media never gets involved, it's very common for the surviving parents, siblings, spouse, or family to suddenly be overwhelmed with well-meaning and supportive attention. We are deluged with messages online via our social media accounts, swamped with calls and texts, and usually experience a heavy flow of people in and out of our homes, particularly in the first few weeks and months. Most of which is loving, genuine, and altruistic. It is a tsunami of support that sustains the newly grieved in their early days of shock and loss.
But that frenzy of attention has a way of either attracting or revealing the hijackers.
In the first case, they are like moths to the flame. They want to bask in the drama bubble surrounding the family until it pops. Or they want to take advantage of people far too vulnerable to notice red flags and defend themselves. They poise themselves as special helpers of the grieving, or especially close to the family. They shine as do-gooders, bringing food or cleaning up, taking calls or helping out, but only insofar as it can be witnessed by others. They mourn openly beside the family, often a little too loudly, a little too readily.
In the second case, they are already positioned close to the bereaved. They may be an extended relative or a close friend. Someone trusted. Someone known. Someone accepted. There's no need to swoop in from outside because they are already part of the expected swarm. They may already be known as that dysfunctional so-and-so, someone whose previous antics are familiar to the bereaved. Or they may be, up until the point of the loss, simply loved and trusted. Someone the bereaved believes has their best intentions at heart. Until it becomes obvious that they don't.
Chances are, if you've been through a significant loss of your own, you know a hijacker.
It is the person who can never seem to control their emotions around you, whom you find yourself comforting time and again when they should be comforting you.
It is the person who can't be bothered to make it to the memorial or funeral service, who must let you know that they were/are unable to attend because they're "going through a difficult time" or find funerals "too sad", rather than simply showing up for you when they're able.
It is the person who is a degree or two removed from the deceased but weeps harder than the parents or spouse, or makes a scene when the closest family does not.
It is the person who stubbornly demands their needs be met even in the face of your horrific loss—that you show up to their baby shower or birthday party, that you put your crisis aside to support them—and then denounces you when you fail, calling you selfish or jealous or undependable to your face or behind your back.
It is the person who loudly and consistently reminds you of how worried they are about you. Often in ways and with words that leave you feeling like you are failing at grief and in life because you aren't keeping up appearances, you aren't "moving on".
It is the person who, when confronted with your shifting needs or the ways they have intentionally or unintentionally added to your pain, is unable to simply adapt or apologize, who takes it personally and acts victimized, who must make you wrong so they can feel right.
It is the person who sees your loss as a competition or merely an opportunity to share their own misfortunes, who must relay all the reasons why their tragedy is even worse than yours. The one-upper who plays a nefarious game of grief roulette, who views suffering as just another means to an end.
It is the person who sees your loss as their chance to proselytize, a chink in the armor through which they can push their beliefs and win another soul for their god or guru. They believe their faith is the Band-Aid that will ease your wounded heart, as though knowing more would make it hurt less.
It is the person who can never let you speak, who must fill every silence around you with their own chatter, who calls but never listens ... or even asks.
It is the person who wants to coat your loss and longing in a shiny sheet of varnish, who glosses over your pain with platitudes and invalidates your experience with their positivity. The relentless optimist who can't afford to be brought down by your sorrowful truth.
And it is anyone else who insists not just on putting their needs and feelings above yours, but on you putting their needs and feelings above your own even as you mourn the death of your beloved child—who cannot see around their own agenda long enough to notice you are bleeding out, or who simply can't be bothered even when they do.
They are the ones who would kneel at your corpse and shake you by the shoulders and say, "What about me?"
They are different than the ones who simply fade from view, the friends and colleagues who, after months or years of your struggling to function, you look up one day and think, "Huh. Where did they go?"
Those people are silent in their departure. They retreat on swift feet and look away at the grocery store. They don't see opportunity in your grief. They don't need a captive audience to their inadequacy to cope with your loss. They simply want to be gone. And so they are.
The hijackers don't leave until they can no longer get what they need from you. Sometimes it is when a shiny new drama calls them away, when your child or spouse's death becomes yesterday's news.
Or it is when they realize you are not equipped to meet their emotional needs anymore because your own have become too great. And then they often leave in a huff, a flurry of offense and wounded pride so they can drag one last ounce of attention from you and your mutual acquaintances before finding someone else to lick their wounds. In their own narratives, they are always the victims, even when you are the one fitting your child's body into an urn or lowering it beneath the ground.
Or, in some cases, they do not leave until they are asked. When the broken family has no choice but to finally say, Shoo! Our pain does not exist for your benefit. But they rarely go quietly in this case. Like in the instance above, there will be a host of How dare yous and I nevers to wade through before a kind of peace can settle, and the grieving can get on with the task of focusing on their loved one who is gone and their own healing.
It's disappointing to see someone's true colors when their true colors are every shade of me. Death has a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us.
In my experience, the hijackers always bear themselves out. Those who love you find a way to tend you better, even if at first it is evident that they are not equipped for this tragedy. Can you blame them? Who is?
But those who need your pain to be about them don't stick around when it becomes clear that is no longer possible. They reveal themselves in word and deed—especially deed—when they can no longer siphon energy away from you or your loss to feed their own egos. It can hurt, the way they rake their nails across your backside as they leave, but in the end you're better off. And in the future you'll spot them a mile off and change course to spare yourself. After all, you have enough pain on your plate to fill a hundred lifetimes.