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Annie's Mailbox

Ask Amy column

Q. My teenage brother, “Jamie,” died last month in a car accident. My whole family misses him deeply, but I’m most concerned about my teenage sister, “Lana.” She and my brother were close in age and were constant companions.

After a few days of nonstop crying, Lana’s tears suddenly dried up, and she smiled and laughed quite normally. I was happy she seemed at peace, but then when other negative things piled up over the course of a few weeks (including the end of a friendship, a job loss, and a robbery), she seemed abnormally unconcerned about any of it, still smiling and joking and shrugging it off with “It doesn’t matter; life goes on.”

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Is sudden, extreme apathy a normal response to grief? Should I get my sister help or just write it off as her own way of coping?

A. My sympathies to all of you for this shocking loss. There is no one way to grieve and there is no one way to cope with loss. I’m sure you have noticed this in your own family, where each family member might have spun off in separate orbits of grief, handling this in his or her own way.

You should not write off any concern you have about a family member, and I agree that your sister’s apathy in the face of repeated stresses is distressing.

She may be seriously depressed, dissociative, or worse. And because she is a teenager , you should not discount or make assumptions about anything.

Please get her in to see a mental health professional right away. Go with her and speak to the therapist together. It will be useful for all of you to have ongoing professional help.

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The American Psychological Association hosts a helpful database of therapists; you can locate a therapist according to specialty and location. Check APA.org. Your family doctor can also make a recommendation.

Q. My boyfriend and I live in a house with two male roommates. I have noticed that one of the roommates has stockpiled black garbage bags in the basement. I moved them recently because they were surrounding the hot water heater, and I felt it was a hazard. The bags seem to be filled with garbage.

I find everything about this situation strange. My boyfriend doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers because we plan on buying a house this year and leaving the roommate world.

Should I stay mum for the remainder of our living situation or should I tell him that garbage is put out every week and not piled in the basement?

A. We seem to have reached a strange threshold, where writing to me has substituted for even the most benign and obvious human inquiry. You live with this person. You literally breathe the same air. And yet you and your boyfriend would rather live surrounded in garbage than risk asking a question?

I suggest you stand at the bottom of the basement stairs and holler up: “Hey, Clem. What’s with all these garbage bags down here? Is this your stuff or is this garbage? We put the trash out at the curb on Friday nights. I’d be happy to help you drag these bags out, but I really don’t think they should be down here.”

Repeated viewings of “Hoarders” have taught me more than I want to know about people who develop garbage hoarding problems. If your roommate has this (relatively rare) condition, it’s best to nip it in the bud.

Send questions via e-mail to askamy@tribune.com or by mail to Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.

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