The support we received when Madeline passed away was extraordinary. I’ve said time and again that I really don’t know how we would have survived without having so many people hold us up. Those early days and months are a blur, but I do know I accepted help from anyone that offered it. I assumed that the intentions behind the offers of help and friendship were pure, but as the shock wore off and the fog lifted, I realized some of these people were grief vultures.

Grief vultures are people who try to co-opt your grief for their own attention and gain. Sometimes they start with the best of intentions and get carried away. Other times, they are “professionals” who swoop from one tragedy to the next, desperate to feel like they belong. I’ve seen it a lot in the last five years through my volunteering and grief groups, and with Jackie, my friend Des, and of course, with Maddie.

When Maddie died, I was a newly-minted stay at home mom, having been laid off from my job a few months earlier. After her death I felt like I had no purpose: no child, no job. Mike and I supported each other when we could, but we were both grieving hard and often needed more than the other could give. So I leaned hard on my friends, both new and old. It was only later that I discovered some of those friends were “bragging” about their relationships with me. They knew lots of people were concerned about Mike and me, so they’d give unauthorized status reports on how we were coping. They basked in the attention and “importance.”

I was recounting this experience not long ago to another friend, who was horrified. She said to me, “Were you so devastated that a friend could do that to you?” I didn’t feel devastated. I felt…stupid. I felt like those users had somehow tainted my daughter’s memory, and I’d failed to protect her (again). And then I felt angry, furious, livid. They preyed on my family during the worst time. They are scum. I had no problem cutting them out of my life.

The problem with grief vultures is they are dressed up in the feathers of friendship. We outsiders can spot them from a mile away, but to those experiencing the fresh shock of grief they are saviors. They bring support, food, companionship. The bereaved don’t realize the vultures are feeding off their grief because they are too overwhelmed by it.

If you think someone you care about is being used by a grief vulture, act with quickness and kindness. Without naming names, confirm with the bereaved the roles they’d like all of their friends and family to play in the aftermath. Do what you can to help those wishes be honored. Nicely remind everyone what the bereaved has requested, and if some people need extra nudges, give them. Try to keep it away from the bereaved as they have enough on their plates. They’ll find out soon enough…and when they do, support them then, too. They’ll need it.

If you have been taken advantage of by a grief vulture, please know it’s not your fault. You were doing what you needed to survive. Focus on those who supported you because they loved you, not those who tried to gain from your loss. Someday, the grief vultures will get their due.