Carolyn Hax: Honoring other people’s grief without overkill

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 30

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Is there any way around asking someone how they prefer to mourn? I have some friends who have lost someone special, and for the first year or two I send a card or e-mail, or call on the anniversary. Easy enough.

But then what? Some continue to mark the anniversary every year. Some don’t want to be reminded of a loss that’s still weighing so heavily on them. (And lots in between, and lots who have preferred different things at different stages.) I hate asking if they want me to acknowledge the date or not; I don’t want to make them explain themselves or justify how they’re mourning. I just know they’re still hurting and I don’t want them to feel alone.

Mourning a Loss


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Asking does not automatically = “mak[ing] them explain themselves.” If you just say you know they’re still hurting but aren’t always sure what they’d like from you, then say you’ll follow their lead, whether it’s to acknowledge the anniversary or let it pass without a painful reminder, I think it’ll be clear to people you’re not judging.

The alternative to asking is just to continue marking the anniversaries as you have. “I remember and I care” is one of those messages you needn’t fear sending.

Re: Mourning:

I would say most people have no idea how they prefer to mourn, even while they are going through it.

Anonymous

True, but this question is about people who are several years beyond a loss. In that case, I think it’s reasonable to think that someone to whom you had sent a card on Year 1 and Year 2 would have a preference for marking Year 3.

Re: Mourning:

The advantage in asking is not necessarily that you get a useful answer, but also the person you’re asking realizes that you’re acting on good intentions and want to be helpful, and are hoping you’re not putting your foot in it. I think that goes a long way.

Anonymous2

I’d embroider this on a pillow, but it would be one huge-ass pillow.

Dear Carolyn:

I was contacted via Facebook messaging by a former boyfriend, who got married and moved away a few years ago. The first e-mail was innocent (“How have you been? Here’s an update about my life”), but the second and third ones were flirty, and now he has crossed over into complaining about his marriage.

I have never met his wife, so I cannot possibly be the appropriate person for him to vent to. Is there any way I can put an end to that line of discussion without cutting off all contact entirely?

Facebook Friends

Tell him that you appreciate his friendship but have no interest harboring an emotional fugitive, and that he needs to take his marriage complaints to his wife directly.

If that moves him to “cut off all contact entirely,” then you’ll know the ratio of ulterior motive to genuine friendship was never in your favor.

By the way, even if you did know his wife, the only way you could have been “the appropriate person for him to vent to” was if both you and he had a shared and transparent goal of strengthening his marriage.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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