(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)
Advice columnist

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. For more than 20 years she has answered thousands of reader questions about everyday life — friendships, dating, parenting, in-laws, siblings, exes, etc.

The Post is publishing collections of columns that address commons trials in life, including death, grief and remembering loved ones.

When do I get back out there?

A reader wrote to Carolyn in 2014 about dating again after their husband’s suicide, which they had recently started in part to placate an 8-year-old son who was worried about them being alone. In the letter, they told Carolyn that going out on dates feels like “cheating or being unfaithful.” The reader asked Carolyn for ways to manage the guilt.

Here’s what Carolyn said:

I am so sorry. That is such a heavy thing to carry with you.

Those vows, presumably, were “till death do us part,” so they don’t impose guilt, they absolve you of it.

But also please free yourself of any pressure to date.

I realize you want to ease your son’s mind now. I fear you could unwittingly hurt him later, though, by reinforcing his idea that alone = bad or dating = pain relief.

It’s okay to be alone while you’re healing; it’s okay not to be interested in dating, yet or ever; it’s okay to be open to having a partner — but also open to being single unless and until you meet a worthy one. It’s okay to find companionship through friends, family, colleagues, the regulars at the coffee shop, pets — as in, however it’s available — instead of in one specific form over which no one has full control.

And it’s okay to address your son’s worries with a gentle, firm, loving and consistent adherence to this message. It’s a message of inner strength and stability for two people no doubt still staggered by a devastating external blow.

In fact, in looking for security or happiness in a romantic bond, just for the sake of having one, you subtly reinforce the idea that those things are available only through someone else. Please model for him an adult who is whole. Grieving, for sure, but complete.

Read the full question and response.

When should I be over this?

Back in April 2015, a reader faced with a string of deaths and bad news asked Carolyn for advice on how to make grief go away.

Here’s what Carolyn said:

I’m so sorry. That is a staggering number of losses in a short period of time. Of course you’re reeling.

You don’t “make” grief “go away,” though. In my experience, at least, it doesn’t work that way — and the idea of a set time to feel bad (and its companion idea, that there’s a time past which you aren’t supposed to feel bad) is anathema to grief.

It’s more like weather, where you just experience it until it eventually passes . . . and you know it’s going to come back sometimes when you least expect it. It’s perfectly normal, and healthy, to feel a wave of grief out of nowhere years after a loss. Not only will some part of you always miss a lost companion, you will also always remember the pain of a death. Not every waking minute, but when you’re reminded somehow, sure. Or just when your brain decides to go knock-knock, remember this?

It seems you’ve been going this alone, armed with logic and an inclination to be rather hard on yourself. While grief is something you do feel and deal with individually, you can work through it collectively. A grief support group might be just what you need, a place to feel that it’s normal, and not your fault, to be filled with dread. Your husband sounds understanding and patient; consider taking his cue and being more patient with yourself.

Read the full question and response.

How can I stop being afraid?

One reader wrote to Carolyn in 2017, a year after their dad died, because their fear of losing their mom was giving them panic attacks — so much so that they started flaking out on spending time together.

Here’s what Carolyn said:

Here’s proof that you’re not thinking straight: You’ve cut your mother out of your life because you’re afraid of not having her in your life.

It’s not just your basic faulty thinking, either, where the result is a car you can’t afford or a degree you won’t use. We’re talking about wise use of limited time with people we love. When your mom is gone someday, I suspect you’ll wish you’d established 100 new routines with her.

So stop letting grief call your shots, and start facing your mom and mortality in general, ideally with a good therapist.

This isn’t just grief for your dad, or even pre-grief for your mom. I’d say it’s significantly, even mostly, grieving for the life you thought you’d have. “I just always thought” is a tough weight to carry. Consider an exploration and unburdening. A gift to yourself.

Read the full question and response.

Why do I have to show up?

Back in 2010, a reader asked Carolyn whether they need to attend the large funeral the family was preparing for their mother, saying they won’t find it helpful to “have a bunch of strangers” offering their condolences and would prefer to focus on their own grief.

Here’s what Carolyn said:

I’m sorry about your mom. And certainly you are the one who has to negotiate your grief, so you’re right to consider what you will need, particularly what will and won’t help.

That is only part of the picture, though. As you touch on in your letter, your mom isn’t just your mom. She is also a wife, and a mom to your siblings, and the holder of 40 years’ worth of personal, civic, religious, parental, educational, commercial and incidental connections to people around her.

While funeral services and gatherings do serve as opportunities to acknowledge, express and share grief, they’re also a way for people to honor your mom. By showing up, they say, “She mattered to me.” People appreciate a chance to stand up and count themselves among those who care.

Because to you she is just Mom, it is entirely your decision whether to participate in any public salute to your mother’s life. However, just as your mom was connected, your life affects others as well — and so your decision affects others.

Please consider not just what you need, but also what your mom would want, what your family would appreciate, whether your absence is something they’re going to have to explain to people, and whether that will strain them more than it will strain you to hear how sorry people are for your loss.

These extra considerations are not unrelated to your needs; in fact, they’re not even in conflict with them. We can’t separate the effect we have on others from the rest of an emotional experience.

No matter what you ultimately decide about attending services, that decision will sit better with you if you put care and thought into it — selfless thought primarily, but some selfish thought is okay, too. If you merely react out of pain, then you open yourself to regrets down the road when that pain starts to ease. Your mother’s fight is almost over, but the second half of your struggle is about to begin.

Read the full question and response.


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Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.