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Carolyn Hax: Readers weigh in on becoming independent, and getting solace in grief


While I’m away, readers give the advice.

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

On growing up with a toxic parent:

My father was, in retrospect, amazingly insecure and passively abusive. If I misbehaved or otherwise gained his ire, he would sometimes not speak to me for a week. When I was about 9, I remember I had done something that really angered him. He threatened to take me to a psychiatrist! I wasn’t quite sure what that was, but I said, “Let’s go now.” He was stumped, with nothing to say. It was the first time I remember, in a naive way, prevailing. I never heard this threat again.

I feel I chose my issues, those where I stood up to him, by accident. In my first university term, I plotted to visit a girl who lived out of state. My parents did not approve of her family. I carefully organized guys on my dorm floor to have a consistent story for my parents if they called. It was a great trip, but my parents figured out what I had done, and my father informed me that I was coming home to finish my education.

(Nick Galifianakis)

I immediately went to the dean, who opened the scholarship/work door to my staying at the university. I wrote to my parents that I was not returning home.

After earning my degree and being accepted to grad school, and with about $1,300 to my name, I decided to join two other grads on their European trip. My father’s reaction was predictable: If I went, I was financially cut off.

I accepted the “offer.” Cut off, I went to Europe for 12 weeks. It was life-changing.

My father’s ever-present weakness pushed me to be independent and accept risk. I learned to get along on my own and to do what I could to achieve my own goals.


On people’s varying responses to a death:

When I returned to work after my dad’s funeral, everybody avoided me like crazy. I guess they thought I would burst into tears if they even said hello. Who knows, maybe I would have. I felt so sad, so alone, and isolated. His obituary had been e-mailed to everyone, so all the details were known.

After lunch on my first day back, I slipped off to an empty conference room to collect my thoughts, and a man I only know marginally saw me go in. He came to me and started this conversation: “I was so sorry to hear about your dad. I didn’t know he was a music teacher! Tell me about him!” I was so happy to have someone to talk to about him. We talked for about 20 minutes about my dad. Yes, I cried a little. But at that moment, that was what I needed so much.

After a funeral, everyone goes back to their lives, what they were doing before — and the family who has lost their loved one is completely lost and directionless. This man, who hardly knew me, reached out for just a moment and cared. I still run in to him periodically at work and can’t tell you how much his gesture, at that moment on that day, helped me to cope.


Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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