Face to face with a grieving friend, often we resort to a move I’ve come to call the Hijacker Helper. It's a style of consolation that works like this.
At the deepest most personal point in our grieving friend's share about their sadness, we reroute the conversation. I call this hijacking the conversation. All so we can share a similar story about a loss that we've suffered. We share about ourselves to let our grieving friend know we’re with them 100%. We do this to help.
Thus, the term, Hijacker Helper.
Yeah, my dad died, too. I was younger than that. I was only 9 when he passed. ☹️
I know! The same thing happened to me! When I went back to work just after Trevor died, I couldn’t focus on anything, and I knew I was going to break down and cry, and every day I had to… ☹️
I’ve performed the Hijacker Helper move a lot. We do it every day in regular conversation. So what’s the big problem?
To answer that question, let’s take our cue from Hijacker Helper’s namesake, Hamburger Helper, the 1970’s Betty Crocker boxed dinner mix that has ridden out the moody swings of culinary fashion for over 50 years on several deft promises: a quick, easy, satisfying meal ready in a New York minute. What's not advertised is that one average serving of Hamburger Helper contains almost our entire daily allowance of salt.
What, pray tell, does any of this have to do with condolences?
I’m glad you asked.
Just as Hamburger Helper delivers a hidden payload of salt within its quick and easy solution, when we do the Hijacker Helper maneuver with a grieving friend, we deliver a painful payload hidden within a quick normal-looking conversation.
But if the Hijacker Helper move is so normal, then why do grievers find it painful?
The short answer is, we try to show how well we’re listening by talking—about ourselves. The more complete answer is...
When a griever is talking about their loss, they’re not in a conversation, they’re fighting for their survival.
Grief and mourning can be so scary-intense to live with day in and day out that it can erode a griever’s sense of themselves as a good and loveable person, hammering hard on their self-esteem. Because of this, grievers need reassurance that they’re ok—not by us saying so directly, but by actually honoring them by listening. This is how we show them that we accept them in their new, grieving state.
By listening without hijacking, we’re proving to them without a doubt that we won’t be a finnicky friend who tries to pick and choose which part of their grief we’ll tolerate. Instead, they see immediately that they can count on us to stand by them as their grief unfolds into the next phase, and the next. That we’re here for them whatever it takes.
Thank you for telling me about yourself. I’m so very sorry you’ve lost your dad. 😊
I didn’t know that about your dad. He sounds wonderful. I wish I’d known him. 😊
Conversely, when we hijack a griever’s conversation, even for just a quick minute, it reinforces their concern that they’re not doing their grieving right.
When we highjack a conversation, the griever often just wants to leave the room.
Because even if we do know exactly how they feel, it just doesn’t help them to hear it. They need us to listen.
If the Hijacker Helper move doesn’t help, then why do we do it so often?
I’ve taken many a hard look at this question. Because, even after being on the receiving end of such failed attempts at consolation, I can still find myself doing it to others!
Sometimes I feel almost incapable of keeping my mouth shut around a grieving friend, like I’m some kind of talking addict. Like I might explode if I don’t tell my grieving friend how completely and totally and assuredly I can relate to what they’re going through.
Why this strong pull to talk instead of listen?
Am I afraid that being quiet isn’t helpful?
Do I need every blessed conversation to be about me?
Am I so totally needy that I require reassurance from the griever that I’m a good friend?
Am I trying to distract my grieving friend with my story hoping they might forget about their loss for a moment? Really? They’re going to forget their loved one is dead or dying?
But maybe, instead, I can realize a kinder more open-hearted view of my foibles—because after all, if I want to offer kindness to a grieving friend, I have to offer it to myself first.
Could it be that it’s just so darn hard to be quiet enough around a griever to lean into their grief with them?
Because when I am able to listen to someone right through my own nervous fidgeting and my need to help, I see that my grieving friend feels better! It's so obvious that I've changed the conversation for the better—just by listening!
This is how we offer meaningful, supportive consolation. We become a bridge over to our grieving friend by moving toward their grief with them.
It doesn’t matter that we’re in public; we mourn when we must. I’m right here with you. 😊
I’m glad you can let it out. Elaine is worth as many tears as you’ve got. 😊
When I’m able to do this—to really listen—my heart swells with relief and joy, knowing I've done something good, something that matters. I've shown my grieving friend in no uncertain terms that I can handle whatever they've got. That I can love them even in their crying jags, their silences, their repetitive stories, all of it.
Together, with us right there bearing witness to and bearing with them in their suffering, our grieving friend can feel like they’re able to bear up under the strain of grief and mourning for one more day.
Listening is meaningful consolation.
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