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The Vine: September 21, 2011

Submitted by on September 21, 2011 – 9:31 AM36 Comments

I broke up with my boyfriend of about 5 months a little while ago. We had met on a blind date set up by an acquaintance, so we were pretty much starting from scratch. The relationship was good, and we got close in that short while, although not to the point of meeting family members or anything like that. A few friends met, and that's about it.

It ended amicably, caused somewhat by his ridiculous work schedule, but mostly by the fact that one of his parents was terminally ill. I'd known about the parent when we started dating, but that situation went from bad to worse recently, and it was causing him a ton of extra stress on top of the aforementioned work schedule. He ended the relationship because he didn't feel that he could devote enough time and emotional energy to it when he was such a mess.

We hadn't been together long enough for either of us to know where this was going, so it was understandable. I respect him for realizing that, and we agreed to stay friends. I want to be there for him however he wants me to, even if it's just at a friendship level. We traded probably two or three emails in the week or two following the breakup, trying to feel out this new friendship thing. They were sufficiently chatty, asking questions of each other and sustaining decent discussions about work, mutual interests, etc.

So that was all well and good, but then about two weeks ago I sent an email and got…nothing. No response. No anything. Under normal relationship circumstances, I'd chalk this silence up to a case of a guy not wanting to be friends after all, but not wanting to say it. However, this is not like him at all. He seemed genuinely happy when I said I wanted to stay friends even if we did break up, and was equally chatty and inquisitive in the e-mails that followed. Also, he's always been a good communicator, and he knows how it bothers me when people don't respond to emails. So, fearing the worst…I checked the obituaries in his hometown paper. And lo and behold, the sick parent died about a week and a half ago. I feel terrible for him and his family, both for the loss itself, and also for the quickness with which it came. Last we'd discussed it, they were counting time left in months, not weeks or days. I know they weren't expecting this so soon.

So, my question — what do I do now? I feel like I should do something — I haven't met the rest of the family, and it's been long enough since it happened, so flowers or anything like that are out. I'd like to express my condolences to him somehow, but given that I learned the news from the internet, not from a person, I feel really strange saying that. I've thought of sending a card or email just stating that I was worried when he didn't respond, but I hate to make him feel guilty, or worse, weirded out that I automatically assumed the worst and Google-stalked his family. Alternatively, I was thinking I could just send a quick email saying I was worried because I hadn't heard from him, and it wasn't like him not to respond and I hoped everything is all right, thus giving him an email to respond to that wasn't the rambling one I sent a few weeks ago (which was full of frivolous work and vacation stories I'm sure he has no use for right now).

What do you think? I mean, I hate to lie and pretend I don't know what happened, but I also can't think of a good way to say how I discovered the information. And I could just send the hope-all-is-well email, but I also hate to sound like I'm fishing for a response. Or, I could do nothing, and figure he'll tell me when his life gets a bit more normal again.

And to make things even more difficult, friends that I've surveyed are split pretty equally between the three choices, or some combination thereof. Which leads me to you and your loyal Nation — help!

I Really Wish I Just Had A Question About A Book

Dear Book,

You're overthinking this. Ex understands that the internet exists; he can probably deduce that you didn't hear from him for a little while, did a quick Google, and found that Parent had passed away — provided Ex cares in the first place, which he doesn't, because Parent passed away and he has a couple of other things on his mind.

The only thing that would weird him out here is you delivering a two-paragraph explanation of your thought processes leading up to the act of condolence. Don't make it all about you by over-explaining your rationale. You don't need a rationale; Ex is your friend, and his parent died.

Don't lie; don't write a novel. Send a card, or attach it to a small donation to a charity he or Parent admires (that information is often in the obituary). Tell him how sorry you are, you hope he'll reach out if he needs anything, take good care, that's it. Yes, the circumstances are a bit awkward, maybe — for you. Making him deal with that kind of thing right now is bad form. If he asks, later, you can explain, but for now? "I'm sorry to hear about Parent's death, I hope you're managing all right, call if you need anything," and get out of the way for a couple of weeks.

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  • Anlyn says:

    "I hadn't heard from you lately, and feared the worst so I did a quick Google search, and found out about parent, which I was afraid of and I'm so sorry, please let me know if there is anything I can do."

    Nothing more nor less, and it shouldn't freak him out or anything.

  • JennyA says:

    Sars' advice is, as always, spot on. What Ex probably needs right now is pure and simple support and it sounds like Ex is the kind of person who will, on some level, be grateful that you just left it at that, as it were. I just went through a similar experience and trust me, there are plenty of people in Ex's life right now who are somehow making this more about themselves and their need for recognition than simply about supporting him (even perhaps with the best intentions!), and the best thing — I feel the truly friendly thing– you can do is not be one of those people.

  • amacampbell says:

    My SO just lost his father and I can say, without hestitation, there is no downside to reaching out and saying that you are sorry for his loss. Reaching out, letting him know you are there, this is a good thing.

    As I get older, I realize that any worries that "it might be weird" are silly. When I need love and support, it's always positive when people reach out, especially the unexpected ones.

    Send a card, let him know you are there if he needs you. Exactly what Sars said.

  • Jael says:

    I don't know that you need to explain at all — why not "I was so sorry to hear of Parent's passing, etc." He'll figure it out or he won't care. The important thing is to offer the condolence, not to explain how you found out about the event that leads to the offering of the condolence.

    Definitely don't pretend you don't know. Don't make him break the news to you, which is the last thing he needs right now.

  • Stephie says:

    Sars is right on. I don't think the Google search part is necessary; he may assume the acquaintance told her.

    As someone who lost a parent, I can attest that a card with a simple, "[exactly what Sars said]" means the world, even if it seems like such a small gesture. And people in his shoes don't wonder how everyone found out about the death, they just assume that the news traveled, which it does.

  • attica says:

    Even if you don't hear back from him, he will appreciate a simple condolence message. It's the right thing to do on your part. Period.

    I'd caution against framing this as an exchange-in-the-course-of-friendship, because a death in the family really has rules unto itself. It's no wonder that funerary customs take up whole chapters of etiquette books, you know? And relying on established forms will not steer you wrong.

    He'll be hearing from lots of people he doesn't know expressing condolence. There's no need to be self-conscious about your expression of condolence.

  • Julie says:

    I'm with Sars–no explanations necessary. If you're friends, there's nothing weird or stalkery about looking up the obit, especially in the Internet age when it's so simple to do. Just send a card saying, "I'm so sorry to hear about your mom/dad, please let me know if you need anything, etc." At this moment, when his parent is weighing so heavily on his mind, I think he'll appreciate that you thought of his loved one.

  • Esi says:

    Sars is right, you're totally overthinking this. My mother died four years ago and I personally told maybe five people. I received way more cards than that, presumably because those people told many others…or maybe people Googled. I neither know nor care. And I certainly didn't think it was weird.

    And, though we do now live in this modern world, remember that this is basically why obituaries and death notices exist. To tell the world of someone's passing so the family doesn't have to sit around wondering if their favorite bank teller heard or not.

  • Whitney says:

    My grandmother died in July. It happened very quickly (she died six weeks after the doctor told her she had 2-3 months) so I didn't have time to tell a lot of my friends what was happening. I personally found that it was very difficult to respond to even things on Facebook because I am not a person who likes to put a lot of my private life in status updates, but for a while it also felt like typing something cheerful and shallow wasn't respectful to my grandmother (and also relatives like my cousin, who was very close to my grandmother and grieving pretty publicly on FB). So I just… didn't say anything, anywhere, to anyone, unless I happened to meet a friend in person who actually meant it when they asked "how was your summer?" So I definitely understand where your ex was coming from.

    However, a few of the friends I did tell told other friends and a few of them reached out to me with a quick email just to say "I heard about your grandmother from X. I'm so sorry," and I really appreciated that. It was nice to have my grief acknowledged without having to be the one who introduced the subject.

  • Katie says:

    I agree with Sars. It doesn't matter how you found out and you don't even need to mention how. Just acknowledge the death and express your condolences, and i'm sure he'll appreciate it.

  • Mel says:

    I'm with Sars – "I was so sorry to hear about your loss, and wish you peace and strength during this difficult time. Please let me know if I can be of any help." Mail it, and don't worry about the explanations. People these days find out about deaths all sorts of ways, and the method isn't relevant, nor is it intrusive to send condolences when you are, genuinely, condoling. Giving the backstory would be making this about you and your post-relationship status, which it is not.

    Also, if you hear nothing from him for the next two months, don't sweat it. He'll be putting a hell of a lot of energy into finding a way into his "new normal" life, and that may include total radio silence for the foreseeable future. It has nothing to do with you, and you sound like a kind and sensible person so while you might have to override an initial "hey, look who FINALLY wrote back!" impulse, I'm sure you'll remember it has nothing to do with you and respond with that in mind.

  • Miss Lucy says:

    I would just point out that this is what obituaries are for. The family provided that information and allowed it to be printed so that larger community could be informed. It's a blessing at a time like that to NOT have to call everyone in creation. Though as Sars says, there's no need to explain, "I saw the obituary" is a not an admission of stalking.

  • Fiona says:

    I just lost a parent a couple of months ago, and at no point did I quiz anyone who offered condolences on HOW they found out.

    Send a note, call, whatever; that's what's important.

  • ferretrick says:

    Definitely just send a card or e-mail letting him know you heard about his loss and you're thinking of him. You can mention he can call you if he would like to talk. Don't worry about how you found out; just leave it at "I heard" unless he specificly asks.

    And if you would have sent flowers to the funeral had you known in time, you can still take that money if you wish and donate it to charity in parent's memory, especially if there's a charity devoted to fighting whatever caused parent's death. Personally, that would mean more to me than anything, before or after the funeral, but I'm a firm believer that one flower arrangement for decoration is plenty; otherwise let the money go to something useful versus something that gets thrown in the trash.

  • Liz says:

    I agree with Sars.

    My mother-in-law just passed away a couple weeks ago. From our experience, 1) any expression of sympathy is appreciated, 2) he will probably be relieved you know about the death (one less awkward phone call or email for him to make), and probably won't really care how you learned of it.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Yep, Sars nails it once again. A brief note and donation may seem like a trifle, but they are kind acts. When dealing with this kind of sadness, kindness means the world.

    And don't worry if the standard "so sorry for your loss" seems too, well, standard. It's not. It's sincere, and the bereaved will be overjoyed, believe it or not, that you chose the short, sweet, well-trodden path rather than trying too hard to be personal or original.

  • Bria says:

    I concur with the group here – a simple note expressing your condolences is just the ticket. I would avoid any mention of "I hadn't heard from you in a while…" because it adds a tone I don't think you intend (sort of a "tsk tsk, you fell down on your social duties and I noticed" thing).

  • Amy says:

    As someone who recently lost a parent to a terminal illness, I can tell you that he's really not going to care how you found out. A card, a phone call, a small donation would mean the world to him.

    And at all costs, DO NOT DO THIS:

    "Alternatively, I was thinking I could just send a quick email saying I was worried because I hadn't heard from him, and it wasn't like him not to respond and I hoped everything is all right, thus giving him an email to respond to…"

    No, no, no, no! The last thing he wants to do is have to write back and tell you the bad news you already know.

    Give yourself a break. :) Just send a card and let him know you're thinking about him.

  • Sharon says:

    "I was so sorry to hear the sad news and just wanted to let you know that you are in my thoughts"

    No need to explain or lie. He's probably not going to spend too much time thinking about how you found out.

  • mctwin says:

    What to do when you can't do anything? Yeah, that sucks! Sars is dead right AGAIN!! Sars, does that ever get tiring? ;)

    Book: Be kind, be supportive and, if you don't know the deceased personally, be concise. Can't find the words? Find a nice card and sign it.

  • Allie says:

    One other thing – he may or may not respond to your card or email. If there is a lack of response don't assume it necessarily means anything about you and your friendship. He could just be overwhelmed or not up for it yet. When I lost my mom suddenly, my lines of communication dwindled – even for people I loved, I had a hard time getting back to them promptly (or at all). I just couldn't do it. And it had nothing to do with them – it was all me. But I always really appreciated the cards, email, voice-mail, etc.

  • Ang. says:

    These notes are hard to write. Everything after "so sorry about your loss" is difficult. Maybe the OP is feeling overwhelmed about what else to write, which made her think about including an explanation (unnecessarily). If so, I have a suggestion: I know you said you never met his family, but when I write a note like this, I like to include something about the person who is gone–along the lines of "I'll always remember this funny thing or that touching thing" or whatever; just something short. Presumably your ex shared some family memories or stories that you found sweet, and maybe you could reference one, maybe along with a regret that you never got to meet such a special/talented/funny/smart person. In these notes, I often express my sincere hope that memories will someday be a comfort. If you want, you can extend an invitation for coffee or just say that you hope to express your condolences in person soon. Maybe this helps?

  • attica says:

    I also recently lost my mother. I'll tell you the only time I wondered "How the hell did they know?" was when I called her pension administrator (housed in a city not at all near her home, and consequently not near where we posted the obit, and come to think of it, I don't even think the obit had been published yet) to inform them of her death, and the phone rep mentioned having recently heard from 'somebody'. So, that was weird, but, seeing as this was a stranger (and one with a big ol' database), I didn't pursue it.

    The random letters I received from friends of my mom whom I'd never met (nor in some cases even knew their names) were universally cherished. The notifications from mom's designated charity were equally surprising and touching.

  • sam says:

    Also, people find this stuff out in myriad and bizarre ways. When my mother passed away on a Thursday afternoon, with a funeral then set for…Friday afternoon (we're jewish), I was really surprised at the number of people who showed up at the funeral. Of course I expected all of mom's friends to find out through the friendship grapevine, but people like…my high school best friend's mother, who, to this day, I have no idea how she actually found out (high school best friend actually lived elsewhere and I don't think I even spoke to HER until after the fact because everything happened so fast). But you know what? It was completely wonderful to actually see her when I got out of the limo.

    (And I should add that this was almost a decade out of high school…)

  • Carrie Ann says:

    I really relate to Whitney above. When I suffered a miscarriage recently, I felt sort of doubly hurt when I had to tell people about it. They were so sad for me, and then I had to go back to the sad place again in that moment no matter how I was feeling before. I wished everyone could just KNOW, because I wanted their support and understanding, but I didn't want to have to break the news to everyone on my own. Telling people can be hard work in a time where everything feels like hard work. I think your friend will be thankful for your support, and maybe thankful that he didn't have to reach out personally to tell you.

  • C says:

    Chiming in to echo the advice of those who are saying contact him, no matter how awkward. You always remember the kindness and effort of anyone who makes any kind of effort, and it can be surprising how few people do, or how few people refrain from saying anything out of some sense of awkwardness. Even if you don't know what to say or how to say it, say something thoughtful & non-demanding.

  • meltina says:

    Been there, done that. Very similar situation in which I kept in touch with the husband via e-mail before we were ever an item. Hadn't heard from him for over a week, but I knew his dad was very ill, and husband's visit home might be his last chance to see his dad.

    I got a trifle worried over the radio silence, but since this was eons ago and Google was still in its infancy (we're talking over a decade ago), I went with my gut and sent out an e-mail to him saying "I haven't heard from you in a while, so I am assuming that the worst has happened. I am so, so sorry for your loss. I am here if you ever need to talk." (I would have sent a physical card, etc., except that it would have required work on his part to get me the address to mail it to, etc., and I didn't know his family back then).

    He didn't take up the offer to talk about his dad (to this day, we only talk about his dad here and there, and usually it's to the effect of "I wonder what dad would have thought about X" rather than the actual loss of his dad), but I did hear from him about a week after that. He later told me that just that brief e-mail had meant a whole lot to him.

  • Kathleen says:

    Agreed. He doesn't care how you found out. Send the card. As the years go by I have learned to keep sympathy cards on hand, so I don't necessarily have to zip out and by one when something unexpected and bad happens.

    If you want to offer to drop off food, by him a drink, pick him up at the airport do that too. He's gonna have a really hard year.

    Two other thoughts, He and his family are in shock. They thought they had months to say good bye, it didn't work out that way. That's a whole lot of unhappieness added to that grief. People react differntly to slow, expected loss and sudden loss.

    You were set up on a blind date by an aquaintance, you might forward to obituary link to them too….

    Take good care.

  • Stef says:

    Echoing the statements above–when I lost my stepfather,who was like my father, it was almost impossible for me to contact all of my friends and loved ones for a while (similar story of we thought we had a lot of time, and it was less than a month). There was So MUCH to take care of, and at the end of one of those days, shooting off a breezy email response or answering a "but how are you feeeeeeling" phone call? Just was not up to it.
    But every card, every phone call, every text, every handwritten note? I remember and appreciated them VERY much, and so will your ex. Do exactly what Sars suggests…and be there if he needs anything. Your words will be very much appreciated.

  • Anne Marie says:

    As usual, the Nation (and Sars) are right on with the advice. When my father-in-law died, it became abundantly clear to me while watching my husband deal with the aftermath that the only thing that's important for friends/family/etc. to do in these circumstances is to be supportive of the grieving. My husband will always remember which friends drove in to attend the funeral, who sent flowers and cards, and who took the time to offer condolences to him and his mom. It meant so much to him. The lesson I took from that is that it is virtually *always* appropriate to attend services if you are able, and to send a letter or card if not. It is a small gesture that means so, so much to the recipient.

  • Nikki says:

    "I heard what happened, and I'm so sorry. Please know that I'm here for you and I care about you. If you need anything, feel free to come to me."

    On a note attached to flowers that you can definitely still send.

  • Annie F says:

    I have to agree with all the other posters, and let you know that it is definitely not too late.

    I lost my dad a year ago, and some friends sent me flowers a month or so later. It was awesome and touching and I never thought, "Oh, this should have been done a while ago." It's actually the weeks and months after that are the toughest, because people start to move on and you are no longer surrounded by people.

    The other thing I would say is, even if you don't hear from him, reach out again. And, if you feel like it is appropriate, say something like, "Let's go grab a drink/dinner/walk/keep you busy" and set out specific dates. I had very random people do this for me, and I can't tell you how much it helped.

    What didn't help is people putting the onus on me to reach out and plan things. I was in no shape to do so, I could barely pull myself together to walk my dog. Those that reached out and were proactive were invaluable.

  • Tamara says:

    Having just lost my mother, I can tell you that I was grateful for each and every condolence e-mail, card, phone call, text, etc. He won't care how you know, just tell him he's in your thoughts. It will mean a lot.

  • Cyntada says:

    Some years ago I randomly read a newspaper article about an ex-boss who lost his teen daughter under tragic circumstances. I never did send a card due to the same struggle Book is having. Just send it, it can only be a good thing.

  • Alyson Miers says:

    Since Ex knows you're a friend to him, and he knows that you know he had a terminally ill parent, I can't imagine why he'd be surprised/dismayed/disturbed/annoyed to find out that you're aware of Parent's death. If he assumes you wondered what was up and Googled for the obits, he'll understand.

  • Mary says:

    I think Sars is exactly right — send condolences (it is not too late) without referencing at ALL how you know. Then, in two weeks, call or email him, and make a SPECIFIC offer of help.

    I lost my mother at a relatively young age (early 20s), and I got radio silence from most of my friends. At the time I was devastated, although now I think they just didn't know what to say. Just say you're sorry for the loss. And don't stop contacting him because he hasn't contacted you. It is really hard to reach out when you're grieving, but you need the social contact.

    However, just making a general offer of help is not actually helpful. Try to find out (if you know any of his close friends) if someone is organizing meals/errands help/etc. If they are, help that way by bringing a meal. If not, then offer to do something like run an errand, make a meal, or something like that.

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