Dear Carolyn: My sister saved me and she doesn't even know. A while back, I had a miscarriage. I was devastated. A month later, we went on our annual vacation with my family. In my bedroom one day, I realized I could clearly hear everything being said downstairs. I heard Mom say she "couldn't help but feel" my demanding job had caused my miscarriage. My brother gave some noncommittal response that sounded like agreement. I felt like I'd been stabbed in the gut. Then my sister jumped in. She told my mother that was an awful thing to say, nothing I had done had caused the miscarriage and I needed their support, not blame. By this time I was sobbing on my bed.

I never told anyone I had heard. With therapy, I've come to a much better place in my own grief and forgiven my mother. She was grieving, too — my baby would have been her first grandchild — and she had a moment of weakness. I have no desire to revisit that conversation with her.

BUT. My opinion of my sister has completely changed, in a good way. I have no idea how I would have coped without hearing her defend me. I had the exact same feelings of guilt/responsibility that my mom expressed and hearing someone say I wasn't at fault — when she didn't know I could hear her! — was so, so important. I could believe that in a way I couldn't believe my husband or my therapist, who of course would say that. Not to mention she probably kept my mother from ever bringing that awful idea up again.

My sister and I live pretty far apart and just haven't stayed connected. But now my perception of our relationship has totally changed, knowing she had my back when it mattered most.

I'm crying now just thinking about it. I really want to thank her. However, I don't want to explain how I overheard them and don't want Mom to ever know. Should I just redouble efforts to stay in touch, or give a generic thank you for helping me through a tough time?

— Grateful

Grateful: Maybe I’m being obtuse, but I don’t see why it’s so important that you not disclose to your sister what you overheard. She might not remember the conversation as clearly as you do; that it was traumatic for you means it’s likely etched in your memory more deeply than in hers. You also don’t need detail: “I heard you defend me, it’s not important when or to whom, but I was profoundly moved by that.”

If you don’t want to risk it, then so be it; I can certainly respect an unwillingness to upset family balances.

But I still think you can thank her for just generally getting it when most people were — unwittingly, no doubt, and with the best of intentions — saying almost exactly the wrong thing.

And yes, redouble efforts to stay in touch, just because.

Carolyn: I'm going to call her this evening and probably bawl halfway through our conversation, but she deserves to know how much she means to me. And how much it might mean to the next person she stands up for.

— Grateful again

Grateful again: Well, now I’m crying. Thanks for the shot of happy.