How can I find out whether my friend really committed suicide?

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 29 2009 6:48 AM

Murder Among Friends?

My college pal supposedly killed himself, but I suspect foul play.

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Dear Prudence,
When I was a freshman in college, I had a tight group of friends. Two of them got together and married last summer. We three were close in college but less so since we graduated. I found out from mutual friends that the groom recently committed suicide. Since people in the group hadn't heard from his wife, I was put in charge of contacting her. She said there was nothing to talk about and asked me not to visit. I then contacted her brother, who had been close to them, and this was the first he'd heard of her husband's death. She apparently had a closed funeral and told no one, because she said that is how he had wanted it, even though he had many friends and was always outgoing and happy. His college friends are distraught and don't know what to believe, especially since there is no record of this in any of the area newspapers. Also fishy is a rumor that he got one of his female friends pregnant. I checked—she is pregnant and says he's the father. His parents live overseas, and his wife never got along with them; as far as we know, no one has contacted them. How can his friends be sure he died, so we can come to terms with everything? I have a crazy idea that maybe she found out about the other girl and killed him in a fit of rage. What is the polite way to make sure our dear friend is resting peacefully and not locked away somewhere?

—Mediating Mourning

Dear Mourning,
I admit I don't often get questions about the manners and morals of possible murder. But if the facts are as you've described, then, yes, I can see why you're alarmed at the idea that your friend, who was young and seemingly happy (if not, perhaps, happily married, viz., the pregnant girlfriend), suddenly killed himself. Also bizarre is the conduct of his wife. Her behavior is so inexplicable that you would think anyone who had watched even a few episodes of CSI or SVU would know to act more like a grieving widow. You and your friends should take what steps you can to establish whether your friend is actually dead or at least whether his death was noted by official channels. First, contact the local coroner or medical examiner and see if they have any record of your friend's body. There are also genealogy sites that track deaths reported to the Social Security Administration, although they may take a while to update. Type "social security death index" into your search engine, and check the sites that pop up to see if your friend is listed. If all this turns up nothing, then you can go to the police jurisdiction where he was living at the time of his "death." Do not make accusations against the wife. Just report the fact that he is missing, that you are unable to confirm his death, and that he did not seem depressed or suicidal. It would also be reasonable to contact his parents to express your condolences. Perhaps they can confirm this tragic turn of events—but if they can't, then they have the standing to push for answers to his disappearance with the authorities and to hire a private investigator to try to dig up the truth.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My husband runs a Web site and chat forum around his hobby. (He is a collector.) His forum is very popular, and people post there not just about their shared interest, but about their personal and professional lives as well. Yesterday, I had the idea to look back at forum posts from around the time my husband met me to see if he had written about the experience. Well, he did. And what he wrote has my stomach in knots. Had I seen it at the time, we would probably not be married now. The posts included lurid details of our private activities, admissions that he didn't want a relationship with me and just wanted to keep it physical, comments about my having kids being "a no-no," a post about plans to go to another woman's apartment that he was interested in, etc. I know for a fact that today he doesn't feel any hesitation about being married to me, he loves my kids, and he is very reserved with the information he posts on the Internet. We have a near-perfect marriage, and I love him with all my heart. I am incredibly hurt by what I saw online, and since I read it, I can't even look at him. I don't want to bring it up because it would only make him feel awful. I know I need to get over it, but I just can't stop thinking about it. What should I do?

—Wish I Hadn't Looked

Dear Wish,
This is a vivid lesson that when you run a Web site devoted to, say, collecting medieval weapons, the best way to keep from finding yourself on the wrong end of a poleax is to refrain from posting musings about your intimate activities to your fellow enthusiasts. But let's put this in perspective. As far as gut-churning revelations are concerned, this doesn't rate a box of Zantac. Be grateful your Internet search didn't turn up that your husband was named "patron of the month" at the local escort service, or that his history cache doesn't show that he's a NAMBLA frequent visitor. The reassuring thing about all this is that it shows that someone can be beset by doubts and worries as he enters into a relationship and still end up being a devoted husband and father. If your marriage is as happy as you say—and I believe you that it is—surely your husband is going to start noticing that you are no longer able to look him in the eye. You have to let him know what you found. Take a thousand or so deep breaths and, with as little rancor as you can muster, tell him that on a lark you went back a few years on his forum and found his postings about your courtship. Say you wish you'd never seen them but that you are certain he doesn't feel that way anymore. And to make sure that all the people on his Web site also don't get the wrong impression, you would like him to delete these personal posts. I bet you will never see anyone's fingers fly faster—and that he will be grateful his stupidity hasn't ruined what you two have.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
After nearly 15 years together and two children, my partner and I were married in California, prior to the passage of Proposition 8. We created a gift registry so our friends and family could provide us with tokens of their esteem and good wishes. During a light political discussion with one of my co-workers, before the election, it became clear she did not support gay marriage and intended to vote yes on Prop 8, because, as she stated, marriage is strictly "one man, one woman." In order to maintain workplace cohesion, I refrained from further discussion. After my marriage, when opening the wedding gifts, I discovered that this same co-worker, who was not invited to the wedding (I did not invite anyone from work), had sent a lovely item from the gift registry! The quandary: What do I do with this gift? Should I return it, write a sarcastic letter of thanks, or take this as a "teaching moment" to enlighten her on her crass hypocrisy?

—Gifted but not Grateful

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Dear Gifted,
I'm going to choose "None of the above." You already made the wise decision to let go of the political discussion with her at work, so extend that to this gift. No, it's not your obligation to change the minds of those who voted for Prop 8, but perhaps you have a chance to do so in this case. How much more effective you'll be if you respond to her gracious gesture with one of your own. In the abstract, she opposes gay marriage, yet she was moved to provide a "token of her good wishes" for your gay marriage because she knows you and knows you have a lovely family. That is the kind of opening that shifts people's thinking on social issues. Write her the kind of generous note you would write to anyone. Then, when you see her, instead of being disdainful or didactic, be disarming. Say something like, "Linda, thank you for the beautiful gift. It means a lot to have you celebrate our happiness."

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
The situation with people answering cell phones and texting during movies is getting progressively worse. I've decided it's time to fight back. I generally will comment nicely to people to please turn off the phone. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. If it doesn't, going to management has been a complete waste of time. Of late, I've taken it to a new level. I've responded to serial offenders by tossing peanut M&M's at them. Most of the time, people get the point and also have no idea where the confectionery came from. However, in two cases the offenders did and said something. Both times, I feigned shock and responded with, "Oh, I'm sorry. I can't imagine why it would distract you from your phone call during a movie." In each of the cases, the person has been too embarrassed to do anything and gave up. Have I crossed the line?

—Dial M for M&M,

Dear Dial,
I acknowledge that part of me wishes I'd been at the showing of Gran Torino when you started pelting texters with M&M's. But you know I'm not going to tell you that I find the more effective confectionery for braining your fellow patrons to be Milk Duds. Yes, it is amazing that people will pay for a baby sitter, parking, and movie tickets, then proceed to ruin the show by lighting up their phones to text, "Hey, what's going on? I'm at a movie." But I'm afraid you have to stick with saying in a contained but exasperated way, "All of us have been asked to turn off our phones. Please do everyone the courtesy of turning off yours." Your approach escalates mere rudeness to assault with a peanut projectile. Keep bonking heads with M&M's, and you're going to end up munching not on popcorn, but a knuckle sandwich.

—Prudie

Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.

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