"I wouldn't want to intrude at a time like this."
These are delicate words, thoughtfully spoken. Even Miss Manners has been surprised to find that on occasion their effect can be to inflict pain on people who are already suffering.
When someone is dying or dead, the immediate relatives herd together for a hospital vigil or to attend to the business connected with bereavement. It is those in the next tier -- more distant relatives and close friends -- who are apt to imagine that their presence at such times would be an intrusion. This may lead them to keep their distance until there is a public opportunity, such as the funeral, for participation.
Notice that Miss Manners is not discussing people who shirk unpleasant social duty. Those who fail to telephone and offer help, to pay condolence visits and to write letters of sympathy do not need to be warned about misplaced politeness. They need to be told to stop rationalizing that the deceased would have been, above all, anxious that his or her demise not inconvenience the living.
Is it their own fondest hope that they will be able to disappear from the face of the earth without anyone's suffering an emotion strong enough to warrant a change of plans?
But Miss Manners is aware that even those who place other people's anguish above their own whims are subject to relief at feeling that anything beyond the formal duties would be an intrusion. "Surely the family would want to be left alone at a time like this," they reason, being at a loss to imagine what they could possibly say, anyway.
Everyone, Miss Manners wants to point out, is plagued by feeling that words are inadequate on such occasions. And indeed they are. But they are infinitely better than silence. Therefore, the polite thing to do when tragedy strikes nearby is to call, offering sympathy and help. And the polite thing to say is "I'm so terribly sorry."
The bereaved who genuinely do not feel up to seeing anyone, or who are too busy, can ask the first such caller to help by taking over the telephone, thanking subsequent callers but telling them convincingly to stay away for the moment.
But there is much else that sympathizers can do. When the lives of anxious families are disrupted, their needs for food and rest remain, although they have difficulty meeting them. Their employers and friends need to be informed what has happened to them.
This is where sympathizers can help. They can run errands for families stranded in hospital corridors, bringing them food and blankets, making their telephone calls -- and discreetly withdrawing when a medical conference is held or a sickroom visit permitted. They can take care of children and attend to other responsibilities that have had to be put on hold for the emergency.
Families that have just been bereaved also need those attentions, plus help in notifying the world about the death and dealing with funeral arrangements. Gathering information for the obituary from the immediate survivors can be comforting for them, as well as useful. It gives the mourners a chance to focus on the life of the departed, rather than on themselves.
This is because what the bereaved need most is the sense that others, as well as themselves, are affected by the loss. People who keep a discreet distance are unwittingly contributing to the feelings of emotional and social isolation, suggesting that the life in danger or lost is not of much importance to an indifferent world.
Offering to keep the family company means showing them that the loss matters to others, and giving them a chance to discuss what that life has meant. There is a great need to relate anecdotes then about that person. It demonstrates that he or she was unique and left an impact on the world. Participating in that discussion, or just being an audience for it, is a contribution sympathizers can make.
It is far better than offering emotional advice. Miss Manners warns that the modern fashion of focusing sympathy on the feelings of the sufferers, rather than upon the cause of those feelings, can be annoying.
People who have lost someone they love do not need to be told that their feelings are normal -- they need to be told that their feelings are shared.
I have written a letter to an association that is dedicated to giving assertiveness lessons. Giving up on "Dear Ladies" and "Mesdames," and unable to pluralize "Ms.," I called a friend for help.
The letter has been sent off following her instructions, without salutation or closing. There must be a salutation for feminist organizations that is the unabbreviated form of "Ms." Several women suggested "Dear Sirs."
Miss Manners is shocked. But she is hardly less shocked at your disdain for the proper forms, "Ladies" and "Mesdames." She considers it a violation of female self-respect to denigrate terms associated with women and advocate the use of those associated with men. Surely this is the very opposite of feminism.
Miss Manners also finds offensive any suggestion that feminism requires stripping life of its little courtesies. A letter without a salutation is too curt for her taste.
Like "Miss" and "Mrs.," "Ms." is derived from the older and once respectable all-purpose female title, "Mistress." However, she does not recommend addressing respectable people as "Mistresses" nowadays. "Mesdames" or "Ladies" will do just fine.