Six months ago, our teenage son was killed in a car accident. I took a month off from work because I couldn’t get out of bed. I’ve been back long enough now that everyone has stopped by my desk to pay respects — which was often jarring and painful. But I’m still getting stopped on the street and in the supermarket by people who “need to tell me” how sorry they are (or ask nosy questions). These people mean well. But I’m devastated, and these exchanges often cause me to break down when I’m trying to keep it together. What can I do?
What a heartbreaker, Liz! I’m sorry for your loss. And I’m glad you can see that these condolence-bombers mean well, even if they mess with your fragile composure. I have less patience with prying questioners, but cluelessness (and occasional lack of self-control) is also part of our human condition. Still, this is one of the lousiest times of your life. Taking care of yourself has to be your top priority.
So, when someone starts a conversation you’re not up to having — and you are the sole judge of that — shut them down nicely. Say, “Thank you! Let’s talk about it when I’m feeling better.” Then move along without the slightest twinge of discomfort. Anyone with a heart will understand.
For the rest of us: When we see people in pain, let’s check our instinct to comfort them on our timetable. Warm notes can be amazing in times of trouble; they give the heartsick more control over when they read them (and often reread them). Phone calls should start with: “Is now a good time to talk?” And we should tread even more lightly when we cross paths in public. It may be kindness that’s driving us to speak. But pausing to find the right moment is even kinder.
As for Those Who Don’t Say Enough …
My dog (and great love) was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve been on the phone — a lot! — with my vet, talking through treatment options and end-of-life issues. I share an office with a young guy who must have heard these conversations, but he hasn’t said a single word about my dog. I find this incredibly cold and find myself growing angry with him. Can I tell him how I feel?
You see what I’m doing by pairing these first questions, right? Grief and compassion are highly individual — and highly charged too. Misreadings and missteps are inevitable. I’m sorry for you and your dog, Anonymous. But isn’t it possible that, rather than being an ice prince, your colleague is simply respecting your privacy?
You don’t mention confiding in him about your poor dog. Many people, in his shoes, would find it presumptuous to speak — having overheard just one side of your personal conversations. Tell him about your dog. Give him a chance to live up to your expectations. But even if he doesn’t, I’m more concerned with you finding folks who will support you than encouraging you to tee off on proximate co-workers.
But My Backyard Barbecue Playlist!
We moved into a new house in the fall. Like many of our neighbors, we have a swimming pool and small patio for outdoor dining. Now that the weather is nicer, we’ve been eating outdoors and swimming a lot. We often turn on our outdoor speakers when we do. A couple of neighbors have complained angrily that they don’t want to hear our music. We’re not blaring it! I think they’re being unreasonable. You?
So, you think your neighbors should be forced to endure your Spotify playlist — on the regular — just because some idiot invented outdoor speakers? Absolutely not! Living responsibly in a community means respecting everyone’s rights. Turn down your music, or turn if off. Try mending fences with your neighbors by engaging them to figure out what volume works for everyone. And, sticklers: Please back off! I don’t care about local ordinances here. This is about being a decent person.
Who Are You Calling Small?
My son is not a big kid. He just turned 14. Over the years, people who meet him often exclaim rudely that he is small for his age. We are taken aback each time this happens. Afterward, I always wish I had a good way to respond. Any suggestions?
Let’s make a deal, Mom. I am much more concerned with how your son feels about these interactions than how you do. Have you spoken with him about the comments? If not, please do — but later, not in the moment. One of the most shaming episodes of my adolescence was when my mom responded directly to a kid who made a bullying crack to me. It may have been the right thing to do, but it felt terrible to me.
Your son may prefer to let these comments slide, or he may want to wield the zinger himself. But his feelings about his size and these stupid comments are the important ones. Start with him. We can build an action plan easily enough after we know how he wants to handle this.
For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.