Dear Carolyn: I'm not big on social media and engage very sparingly. I can go a week without checking, so sometimes I'm a bit behind on my friends' news.
I recently saw that a high school friend's husband killed himself last week and left her with her four young kids. The news is so horrible. I immediately donated to the fundraiser set up by her closer friends, but is there something else I should do? I have not talked with her in more than 15 years and never met her husband. We were friends in high school but not super close.
I hate posting public comments on Facebook. Is it weird to just send a private condolence message? If I do send something, what do I say? "Sorry we haven't spoken in more than a decade, but I'm sad for you"? Would I be doing it more for me than for her? Is the acknowledgment of her pain from, let's face it, basically a stranger at this point in our lives, a kind thing or just something that might stir up annoyance and resentment from her — "Great that you're sad but where have you been the last 15 years?"
— How to Respond
How to Respond: So terribly sad.
Do send a condolence card, because it’s not weird at all. Just, “I am so sorry for your loss,” with nothing about the context of your friendship.
Your job is to show concern in as sensitive a manner as you can, without putting your friend on the spot. The card allows you to say “I care” in a way that preserves both of your privacy.
When in doubt about wording, it’s best not to get creative, because it risks offense for very little reward. Two safe bets are “I’m sorry” and “My condolences.”
As for the whole where-have-you-been question, that’s actually not unusual or even terribly important right now. Friendships end, friends take different paths, it’s a routine part of life. Even if there’s something to be resolved between you, then that’s for another time. Now’s the time to rally to say you care, even for “basically a stranger at this point” — which really does help the bereaved.
Thank you to the readers who weighed in:
●A couple of months ago I sent a small gift to a Facebook friend going through a very difficult experience. I hadn’t spoken to her since we graduated high school almost 30 years ago. I really agonized about it, but I was glad I sent it — her (private) response showed she appreciated the gesture and didn’t find it strange or inappropriate.
●A mere card with only a signature: no. Write something original, even if it’s just “Very sorry for your loss.”
●An “I’m sorry for your loss” on Facebook counts as a response. It sounds cheesy, but when my mom passed away, having Facebook friends express their sympathy that way was actually extremely comforting, especially since I was with her, away from my hubs/kids/closest friends. This isn’t for everyone, obviously, but if the news is shared on social media and you aren’t a close friend, just those few words can be surprisingly meaningful.
Me again: If you are in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org, and take care.