Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Dec. 21 2009 3:07 PM

Holiday Grieving

Prudie counsels a mother who is at a loss for words after losing her son—and other advice seekers.

(Continued from Page 1)

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re: Christmas Letters: I second your recommendation that the woman who lost her son send out a note with her annual photo. I absolutely love them and don't understand the hate. Every year, we get poignant updates like hers, beautiful photos of friends and family, and news from friends and family we don't keep in touch with. Also, for no cost to us, we receive hours and hours of self-indulgent, entertaining over-sharing from those who are simply out of touch with us and reality.

Emily Yoffe: Especially since we live in times in which people feel the need to share electronically such fascinating daily tidbits as being stuck in line at the airport, or what they had for lunch, what's the objection to a Christmas letter? These are an effort to actually craft a summary of the year, and as you mention, they can be heart-breaking, poignant, moving, funny, and even ridiculous. I love them.

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WDC: I normally have an extended break during the holidays, most of which I spend at home (out of state) with my family. This year for a variety of reasons (mostly due to the pressure and gloom I feel at home), I am choosing to stay for only two days. I feel guilty enough, but I know once I start telling people, they will all make me seem like a horrible person for not spending time with my family. Mind you, no one ever visits me, and I am always expected to travel to see other friends and family who live in the tri-state area, but I don't even have a car. Do I just suck it up and stay a few more days, even though I will most likely be in a funk? If not, how do I explain to people that I want to have a stress-free holiday break and prefer to be by myself without seeming selfish?

Emily Yoffe: Sometimes when you're in a gloomy state, being with loved ones can be just the thing to comfort you; and sometimes it can be just the thing to send you over the edge. The way you stop feeling guilty for wanting to be alone is to realize as an adult you are entitled to do what's best with your free time. You're making a holiday appearance, so you don't owe them an accounting of the rest of your vacation. If it would help, you could say that you are really excited about the chance to soak in some culture — there are a couple of museum shows and concerts you've been looking forward to. And if you're in a funk, treating yourself to something special might lift your holiday spirits.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I recently moved back to the Bay Area for a wonderful job with great benefits. I have a 2-year-old who is the apple of my eye. He is sweet, charming, handsome, and just an overall great kid. In moving back to this area, we are now closer to my sister and her child, who is 3. My nephew, on the other hand, is extremely sweet but only once you are on his "buddy list." Also, my child's grasp on speech and language is superior to my nephew's.

Friends and our family comment frequently on how different the children are. They make comments like "I like 'Jack' better than I like 'John.' Why can't John be as sweet as Jack? I'll watch Jack, but I can't watch John."

With the holidays approaching, I know I can expect to hear these comments at some point during the festivities. While I appreciate the compliments to my child, I can't help but feel defensive about the insults to my nephew. He was raised essentially by my parents because my sister works very long hours and goes to school. She has never disclosed who is his father, therefore he has never had a relationship with him. And because our mother doesn't have to work, she keeps him all day, and he has never really interacted with ANYONE outside of our household. I just don't think it is fair that they judge my nephew on circumstances that he can't control. Of course, I don't want to address all of this—I just want a quick comeback when someone makes a snide remark.

Emily Yoffe: Although you have your hands full with your son and your job, I hope you find the time to intervene on behalf of your nephew. The situation with your mother has to end. Sure, she's a free baby-sitter, but she is severely stunting his social development. No wonder he's difficult; he's essentially being kept as a prisoner with an old woman all day. A 3-year-old needs to be socializing with other kids! Maybe you can pull together a family conference to try to come up with alternate arrangements for your nephew. And when people make invidious comparisons between the boys, call them on it. You can say, "Every child is different, and I agree with you that my Jack is wonderful, but John is a great kid, too, and it pains me to hear him put down."

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Salt Lake, Utah: At the end of October, I found my boyfriend had been looking at online dating ads and porn. To make the problem worse, it was men-for-men personals and gay porn. I found this by looking at the history on his computer. I confronted him a couple of weeks later (I had to work up the courage). He was very calm and not defensive at all. He gave me a reason for this behavior that, at the time, I believed; and I promised not to do it anymore. The problem now is that I know he is still looking at the online personal ads, and I know this because of snooping. I love this man and don't want to lose him, but I also don't want to be with a liar/cheat. How do I confront him again?

Emily Yoffe: Your boyfriend came up with a good enough reason for looking at gay personal ads that you found it temporarily convincing? What was the reason? Cheaters everywhere want to know! You may love this guy, and you may not want to lose him (why?), but you don't trust him enough not to be snooping on his computer. Your lack of trust is more than justified since you find he's continuing to peruse gay porn and dating Web sites. I think the time for confrontations is over, and the time for packing has begun.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: I have been aware all my life that my sister is different. My mother describes her rigid physical inability to receive or give affection as a baby and child. I am younger, so I did not understand why learning seemed to be beyond her in school, why she did not show compassion for other people, and why she did not have close friends. She was a beautiful child and young woman and attracted men easily, but those relationships did not develop into anything sustaining. Life has been hard for her without a career or a job, and without a partner to share life with. I remember being frustrated with her for most of our lives. I excelled in every area that she found difficult, and I felt guilty and tried to pretend that I was not as capable as I am when around her.

Now that we are both in our early 60s, I realize (having discussed this with a professional) that she has probably been undiagnosed autistic. This is not something that she would accept or could ever discuss with anyone. She is on permanent disability after psychological evaluations that she will not talk about. I feel awful that she has struggled her whole life, and that I was not more patient or understanding. How can I develop a relationship with her now? We live in different states, so the communication will have to be by phone or letter, as she finds e-mail difficult. What do I do now?

Emily Yoffe: A few sentences into your letter I thought, "It sounds as if the sister has autism." And when you ended by saying you were both in your 60s, it was clear why back then no one knew. What a tragedy for people who went through their whole lives shunned for being different and no one understood why. Not that being autistic or having an autistic family member isn't a huge struggle today—but what a comfort to know what this condition is and have a community to share this struggle with. It's wonderful that you want to reach out to your sister. You might start by making a connection with the autism community through a support group such as Autism Speaks. Surely there are people who have been in your situation and can help guide you through the best way to make and maintain a connection with your sister.

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