Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: Is there any way around asking how someone prefers to mourn? When I have friends who have lost someone special, for the first year or two, I send a card or e-mail, or call on the anniversary. Easy enough.
But then what? Some mark the anniversary every year. Some don't want to be reminded of a loss that's still weighing so heavily. (And lots in between, and lots who have preferred different things at different stages.) I hate asking whether they want me to acknowledge the date; I don't want to make them explain themselves or justify how they're mourning. I just know they're still hurting and I don't want them to feel alone.
Answer: Asking does not automatically equal making them explain themselves. If you say you know they're still hurting but aren't always sure what they'd like from you, then say you'll follow their lead, whether to acknowledge the anniversary or let it pass without a painful reminder, I think it'll be clear to people you're not judging.
The alternative to asking is just to keep marking the anniversaries as you have. "I remember and I care" is one of those messages you needn't fear sending.
Question: I would say most people have no idea how they prefer to mourn, even while they are going through it.
Answer: True, but this question is about people who are several years beyond a loss. In that case, I think it's reasonable to think that someone to whom you had sent a card on Year 1 and Year 2 would have a preference for marking Year 3.
Question: The advantage in asking is not necessarily that you get a useful answer, but that the person you're asking realizes you're acting on good intentions and want to be helpful, and are hoping you're not putting your foot in it. I think that goes a long way.
Answer: I'd embroider that on a pillow, but it would be one huge pillow.
Question: I was contacted via Facebook messaging by a former boyfriend who married and moved away a few years ago. The first e-mail was innocent ("How have you been? Here's an update about my life"), but the second and third were flirty, and now he has crossed over into complaining about his marriage.
I have never met his wife, so I cannot possibly be the appropriate person for him to vent to. Is there any way I can put an end to that line of discussion without cutting off all contact entirely?
Answer: Tell him that you appreciate his friendship but have no interest in harboring an emotional fugitive, and that he needs to take his marriage complaints to his wife directly.
If that moves him to cut off all contact, you'll know the ratio of ulterior motive to genuine friendship was never in your favor.
By the way, even if you did know his wife, the only way you could have been the appropriate person for him to vent to was if both you and he had a shared and transparent goal of strengthening his marriage.
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.