There’s an article in this morning about dealing with loss, and how people often tend to try to “help” a grieving person by offering their worst stories of loss. In this case, the author was talking about losing a Treo and the article was meant to be humorous, but couldn’t it just as easily be any kind of loss? You know what it reminds me of? Grief vultures.

If you’ve lost anyone really close to you, you know about this. These are people you may have never even met before, but they want to be part of the grief action, too. I know that we never know how we affect people, and so a person who dies may very well have a legion of secret admirers who suddenly come out of the woodwork to announce their devotion to the dearly departed. I’ll grant that. But some of the time it just rings hollow, as if the would-be mourners are seeking attention by crashing wakes and talking about how much they loved the departed.

I remember clearly that in June 2002, when Eppie Lederer (aka Ann Landers) and baseball pitcher Darryl Kile died on the same day, John Kass wrote a column called “So much to say after a death, so little we know” in the Chicago Tribune about this experience, and it resonated strongly with me. The article is archived and has to be purchased to be seen in its entirety, so I gladly paid the $3.95. It’s worth it for this quote alone, which wraps up the column (which I’m probably not supposed to be sharing in this large a passage, but it doesn’t really lend itself to excerpting):

Most likely in these recent accounts, there may have been a few anecdotes from folks who didn’t know the deceased, really, but who were perhaps drawn to the flame of celebrity, compelled to reach for that light as it flickered, and so revealed their own anxious appetites.

You also may have seen that same behavior expressed by folks you know, say at a church, a temple, at funeral homes, while mourning your own less public dead.

In the funeral home, there is that dull humming of mourning. You take a break, walk past the rows of chairs and make for the lobby.

Outside, standing on the driveway in their suits and dark clothes are folks just like you, paying respect, adopting a brief distance from the weight of the survivors inside.

In a group of three or four, someone is speaking with extreme authority. The others listen, nodding, to the explainer of the dead.

The explainer isn’t simply expressing grief or loss or admiration of character.

Instead, the explainer offers histories, a litany of motivations, of successes and failures, attempting to encapsulate something as complicated and mysterious as a life.

There is nothing to do but walk back inside, perhaps to say a prayer.

There are important bits of us unknown, even to those we love and who love us.

I’m not referring to anything dark. Rather, I’m referring to those decent parts of us that can’t be cataloged or touched by the explainers of the dead.

A friend of mine experienced a different kind of grief vulture when her husband died. A few people grilled her to share how it felt, how it really felt, to lose her husband and best friend so young. Apparently these people’s interest didn’t come across as supportive, but rather as if they were trying to satisfy some morbid curiosity.

I don’t have any neat and tidy way to wrap these thoughts up. I don’t know if I can simply say it must be human nature, and leave it at that. Personally, I think there’s some dysfunction in parts of our society that make it permissible to compete when competition is not relevant, like in everyday conversation. But getting into competitive conversation will take me off on a whole different rant, so I’ll save that for another day.

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Competitive grief & grief vultures

9 thoughts on “Competitive grief & grief vultures

  • January 23, 2007 at 8:30 am

    I’ve heard this sort of thing before. And it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

    I can understand and have even felt the impulse to say stupid stuff like that. It doesn’t feel competitive. It feels like “agh! express sympathy! do not sound like Smug Married listening to Singleton talk sadly about bad experience that I have fortunately escaped! assure friend that they are not unjustly singled out for bad shit to happen!” I try to control it, because I now know that the only possible polite reaction for the friend then is to try and comfort me for whatever bad shit I bring up, and so it is a very rude kind of stealing focus. But it worries me that it is still sometimes an impulse that I have to think through.

    Also, life gets busy, and sometimes time will pass & I won’t have talked a lot to a friend for a while; but then if I hear about something bad happening to them, I will make an effort to check in with them more. But then sometimes I don’t because I worry that I’m coming across like a vulture. Or worse, that I actually *am* being a vulture if I only make an effort when bad things have happened. 🙁 It’s hard to say, y’know? I assume that people who do this don’t *realize* they’re acting like assholes.

  • January 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Ugh. This post reminds me of a high school friend of mine who has not grown up muhc since then. No matter how personal a tragedy anyone else had, the drama of it had to shift to revolve around her.

    I spent a visiting semester at ETSU when I was in college. One of this girl’s friends went home to Bristol because his father was dying of cancer…as in any minute. She was fine with waiting at the dorm for news, until she found out that another of their mutual friends was actually there with the family. Suddenly she wanted to go down there at 11 at night. I said, I’ll go with you, but only IF we call first and and make sure that we’re welcome. She got angry about this and told me and her roommate that we weren’t being very good friends to Brian. I’ll never forget her floucing out of the laundry room with her nose in the air.

    Then she had the nerve to call Brian and confront him about having someone else there. He had to hand up on her because things were happening over there, AT THAT MOMENT. One of the things that bothers me the most is that her self-interest is forever tangled in his memories of that night.

    I had gone back to my room to lay down in case we got some news. I heard my friend’s phone ring down the hall. In seconds she was at my door, crying as if she’d lost someone in her own family.

    It gets better! Brian told us that we were welcome at the funeral, but that if we didn’t go he’d understand. Another of their mutual friends decided not to go, just to givet he family their privacy, and my freind judged her for that. This is in spite of the fact that the year after I graduated, she refused to accompany me to the funeral of a classmate whose sister had been a friend of hers, just because she was so uncomfortable with death.

    So now that reply has gone longer than I expected…/rant.

  • January 23, 2007 at 9:53 am

    First of all, I’m so totally not convinced that you really do all that much of this sort of thing — I’ve spoken with you about difficult things before, and never once felt like you were incapable of leaving the focus on me until my “turn” was done.

    I also hear you about the likely benevolent motives. I do grant that there’s a whole hell of a lot of social awkwardness around grief and other difficult life situations.

    assure friend that they are not unjustly singled out for bad shit to happen!

    That’s a good point. I’m sure that’s what most people are thinking. And oh, how I wish I could retrain people. Because here’s what I think: one of the strange things about grief is that sometimes people do feel like they’re being unjustly singled out for bad shit to happen, and that’s just a part of the grieving process. Being assured by someone that they’re not being singled out or that they’re not alone may backfire and cause the people to feel unheard and even more alone. Sometimes well-intended supportiveness feels like “get over it; I did.” And there’s a time and a place for “get over it” but I think you have to be really close to someone to see when they need a kick in the pants rather than a quiet hug and an available ear.

    (Having said all that, I repeat: I do NOT think of you, specifically, as being a grief vulture. You have never been anything but supportive to me during my difficult times in the last 9 or whatever years since we met. For which I am, as ever, extremely grateful and always ready to reciprocate, though I hope I never to have to.)

  • January 23, 2007 at 9:58 am


    Death can bring out so much ugliness in the living.

  • January 23, 2007 at 10:09 am

    Mmm. Thank you for this post.

    The “my experience was worse than your experience” sort of one-upsmanship doesn’t really resonate for me. What I have seen, though (and which I think is a related phenomenon) is a whole series of very public performances of grief *over the same loss*. It just makes me want to throw up. I admit that I am probably more sensitive to this than most people because for me, grief is such a private thing that even funerals are too public…but that kind of “oh, woe is me, I’m so devastated!” “but me, I am even *more* devastated!” performance truly is one of the most odious things I’ve ever seen. It makes me weep for human nature.

    If there were a good way to ask that all of my livejournal entries be frozen before my death was announced to anyone, that would probably be the very first provision in my will.


  • January 23, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Yes, I think they’re related, too. (I could have done a better job making that connection, I now realize, but hey, it was 6 AM.) That crazy “look at me! I’m so devastated!” behavior is appalling. The way I’ve seen it, it is almost always completely out of proportion with the behavior of those closest to the deceased, who are often grieving more quietly.

  • January 23, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Wow, did this ever resonate. I want to outline how, but I have to leave for work in about ten minutes. I will put a placeholder here and try to get back to it.

    Thank you for writing this and sharing it.

  • January 23, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Oh, I am so glad to hear it. You’ve had some really rough times over the past n years; I’d hate to think that I’d done anything to make them worse.

    Sometimes well-intended supportiveness feels like “get over it; I did.”

    That. Is a really good point. I will keep that in mind.

    Both to not do it, and to realize that when it sounds to me like people are saying “get over it,” it may be well-intended supportiveness.

  • January 23, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    For lack of a more literate response, dude…yeah…whoa.

    I never know how to act when being a supporting character at a funeral (which, thankfully, has been my only role at a funeral thus far). Mostly I just stand around quietly and try not to offend anybody.

    Here’s a bad metaphor: it’s like when a friend tells you that she’s a recovering anorexic. You want to show that you care, but you also know that making a big deal out of it just makes it weird. So, what do you do? “Well, know that I care and I’m here if you ever need to talk…but I’m gonna stay out of your face about it unless you bring it up. Yes?” That’s pretty much me at any funeral. Holding up a wall, but willing to hug if necessary.


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