My father passed away recently, and the outpouring of compassion has been wonderful and overwhelming. I have gotten cards, e-mails, etc. from friends and family. I would love to thank everyone, but right now my bandwidth is pretty thin. Is it OK if I thank people later or slowly over time? Or not at all?
D.G. / Natick
My father recently passed away from a long illness. Many friends and relatives sent their condolences and attended his funeral. However, some did not. I am so hurt. How do I forgive them? How do I react when I see them?
Anonymous / Boston
The death of people we love is freaky like a tornado. You expect loss and devastation once the storm has passed. But while much is destroyed, much more is simply, and disturbingly, displaced. The construction workers’ Porta John is now inside the dining room. The children’s treehouse now sports a Dunkin’ Donuts sign.
Similarly, when you are in mourning, fury or glee or startling clarity may flood your mind at the most incongruous moments. Psychologically, the trick is to stay open to genuine insight and personal change while not mistaking every emotional spasm for an epiphany.
Social and religious rituals try to give the bereaved some choreography for the difficult dance of mourning, but no cultural solution can work for every individual. America, in particular, is notoriously bad at facing death directly and supporting mourners and the dying.
Anonymous, your experience is common. Find some other recently bereaved people — in real life or online — to talk to. These folks can validate your experiences and feelings and might have some good coping strategies. Your anger isn’t a one-and-done quick fix — you need to process this through ongoing conversation.
There are three types of people who will fail to support a bereaved friend: the across-the-board rotters who weren’t really your friends in the first place; the good people who are ignorant of or intimidated by death and mourning; and the good people who wouldn’t expect a card from you if the situation were reversed and assume you feel the same way. Intuition, guided by conversation with other people in the same boat, will help you sort out who is in which category.
D.G., even the most white-gloved etiquette traditionalists agree that there is no deadline on thank yous for condolences. You do what you can when you can. People who sent a gift or flowers should get a thank you to let them know their gift has arrived; store-bought cards with no note don’t require an acknowledgment. For the gray area in between, let common sense guide you. You can separate the mechanical task of answering letters from the emotional task of responding to them. Answer all the e-mails at one go, with one or two boilerplate sentences that you can copy, paste, and tweak, and then print all the e-mails out and read them later, when you are up to it. You can also use social media and the good old gossip grapevine to get your thanks across to your various networks at large.
The point of these thank yous isn’t really to discharge an obligation — no decent person will be imperiously awaiting your gratitude — but to acknowledge that the mourner has reconnected with the world of the living and is ready to move on.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.
WHAT FAMILY DILEMMA HAS LEFT YOU PERPLEXED? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at firstname.lastname@example.org.