Beware: grief hijacking

If you’re in a conversation with a griever, and the griever is now consoling you, you have hijacked their grief.

In our attempt to empathize, we often end up telling our own story instead of listening to theirs. This happens so easily we don’t even realize we’re doing it!

  • “This is just like when I lost my . . .”

  • "Your dad just passed? I know how you feel - my dog recently died."

You probably didn’t mean to. You were probably just trying to show that you understand how they feel. But by doing so, you have shifted the conversation to be about you. It’s not about you right now.

  • “You’re not going to miss my wedding because of this, are you?”

Demanding the grieving person show up to social events is also usually done with good intentions. We want our person to attend the special event, but if they’re not ready, they’re not ready. You can’t hurry grief.

Grief comparing is another form of hijacking:

  • “At least you can remarry. I’ll never be able to replace my daughter.”

  • “My friend has struggled with infertility for 10 years, you just started having trouble.”

No one's grief is any more or less important than anyone else's. Even if you and I suffer a similar kind of loss, our grief is not the same. Losing a pregnancy is not "less of a loss" than losing a child. Losing a parent is not "more of a loss" than losing a sibling. Even if you and I lose the same exact person - our grief will not be the same. We are all worthy to grieve.

Something that’s really common for grieving people is they'll be at the memorial or funeral service and run into somebody at the grocery store and they ask you how you're doing and you say, “Not that great you know this is a really rough day,” and the person will jump in with their own story of grief. So, we call that grief hijacking.

You’re trying to say something that's happening to you and somebody comes in with, “I know exactly how you feel my sister died 15 years ago and when that happened … “ and then they take the conversation completely into their own experience.

Now, what we think we're doing as supportive people is we're empathizing. We're showing we understand the territory. We're showing that we get you. Unfortunately, that's not how that feels to a grieving person.

To a grieving person that feels like, “Now we're talking about you instead of talking about me.”

My theory as to why we so often meet somebody else's grief story of our own is because we never give grief any air time in this culture. Everyone is carrying some kind of loss. So, it's like we carry these grief stories around and they're looking for an entry point. Any safe harbor, I’m going there. “Your sister died? Oh my god, my sister died when she was a kid, let me tell you all abut it. So we have this right story, wrong time.

If somebody needs to tell the story of their loss at any given opportunity, what that tells me is that they haven't yet been heard. We’re all carrying losses that haven't had the chance to be heard. That doesn't mean that every time is the right time to tell your story. Let your grieving person have the stage at that time. You can also say, “I’ve had some experience some loss and I would love to talk with you about it if it feels like that would be helpful.” Again we always want to ask for permission before we jump in with our own story. It's not that your own story is bad or wrong; it's just whether this the time and place for it or not.