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.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I am loving being socked in by the snow, although my ardor was tamed when I took a header down the front stairs this morning—but I'm still in shape for typing.

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Reston, Va.: In the past, I have sent Christmas cards to friends and family with a photo of my three growing children. Last spring, my youngest son died and I was not able to send out Christmas cards at all. This year, I am better and want to send out the photo cards, but am really floundering for a good way to do this. Many friends, but not all, know about his death. Many are friends I want to keep in touch with who would want to know about my son. I was just too devastated last year to do Christmas. Any suggestions?

Emily Yoffe: My deepest condolences for this devastating loss. People mock Christmas letters, but I think they're wonderful, and in your case including a letter would be helpful both to the people who know of your loss and to those who don't. People would also be grateful to hear that a year later, you are doing better. You can simply explain the facts of your son's loss, what a hard year it's been, and how you've all been doing. If there is an organization or cause that was near to your son's heart, you could mention that contributions in his memory can be made it to. You can thank people for their love and support, and say how much people's memories of your son and tributes to him have meant. I'm sure many people are feeling awkward toward you at this time of year, wondering if they should say something about your son, or if it would seem insensitive. So it would help them for you to say how much your son is in your thoughts and how much it helps to remember him.

Philadelphia: My husband and I have begun a friendship with a couple who moved into the neighborhood about the same time we did. They are very hospitable and social and have invited us to their home on several occasions. We have reciprocated by having them to dinner at our home and dining out with them. Now it's our turn to host again, but here's my dilemma: They have two girls, ages 3 and 5, who have no boundaries. Even when stopping by to say hello, the girls will grab food off the counter and start eating it, run upstairs through our bedrooms, chase the cat, and pick up anything and everything. The parents make half-hearted attempts to control them, which the girls ignore. I dread an evening of cringing while our home is destroyed. Times are tough financially, and they can't afford to hire a sitter. We do enjoy conversing with the parents, and it's definitely our turn to host. In fact, they've already invited us for New Year's Eve, so we're going to be further behind in our hospitality. Help!

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Emily Yoffe: Hospitality does not require that you sit back while your home is systematically destroyed. If the parents have no boundaries, you should, and if you're willing to have the whole family over, you should make some physical boundaries for the girls. Confine them to a single room. Ask the parents to bring over some of the girls favorite toys, and then you can have some crayons and paper and cardboard boxes, and then tell the girls this room is their playroom, and the rest of the house is off limits. If the parents won't speak up if they then proceed to chase the cat or jump on your beds, you should feel free to explain none of this is allowed in your house, and they need to go back to the playroom. If the parents don't like this, then you can consider yourself free from reciprocating their hospitality until the girls learn more self-control.

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Birthday Bad Taste: Saturday, I got an e-mail invitation from a friend (more of an acquaintance; I only hear from them for solicitations for their business and party invitations) inviting me to their 40th birthday celebration. It was a PowerPoint presentation inviting me to month-long events (all which cost money) where I can join her in celebrating her birthday. Yesterday I received an e-mail from one of her friends (I do not know this person) listing gift ideas in case we (the invitees) are confused as to what to get her for a gift. The list was long, indicating a preference for gift cards (listing about 20 stores and restaurants), clothing sizes, and candle scents. I consider these types of "invitations" in bad taste (I do not plan to attend anything), however, this is one of several invitations that I have gotten in the past year (from various people). This is the first one I received with the gift list, but many of the others are invitations where the guests are expected to pay for the pleasure of attending a birthday celebration (which usually includes chipping in for the honoree's meal as well). I was taught that if you invite someone to a party, you paid (have something that you can afford). Am I too old-school (I am in my 40s), or is this the trend now, and I need to get on board? I think I read somewhere that Miss Manners said that this was in bad taste. Your thoughts?

Emily Yoffe: A month-long celebration of her birthday—how exciting that the Queen of England is a friend of yours! Well, maybe not—I guess the queen is in her 80s, and although her subjects do pay taxes to support her, I doubt she would issue an invitation for a birthday party at which the guests were hit up to pay for the party and told what expensive present to bring. If it's old-school to find this distasteful, let's hope they're not building too many new schools. I'm sure you're right that the great Miss Manners found this all in lamentable taste, and I will second her opinion.

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Brighton, Mich.: My husband passed away this past April after a terrible battle with cancer. Last week, I received a Christmas card addressed to both of us from one of his former bosses and his wife. Now, I know this will happen from time to time, and I realize the wife probably just automatically sent the card out from last year's list. Should I send a little note thanking them for the lovely card, but with a gentle reminder to remove our name from the card list? I did not send out cards this year and will not otherwise be having any contact with them. Thank you for your advice!

Emily Yoffe: I am sorry to hear of your loss. There is no good time of year for grief, but the holidays do amplify people's sense of loss. As was dealt with in the letter above, this is the time of year you hear from, or get in touch with, people you may not have communicated with all year. Thus a Christmas card to your late husband from a former boss. The kindest thing for you to do would be to send them a note saying it was lovely to get their card, and that sadly you need to tell them that your husband lost his valiant fight with cancer last spring. Please do not add that you now want to be struck from their card list. And if they continue to send you a card in years to come, let it be a reminder of the fond thoughts people will always carry of your husband.

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Alexandria, Va.: When I moved away from my small-town USA home years ago after college, I didn't realize that I dropped off the globe for my family. I love my family and make every effort to keep in touch and visit. However, after 10 years I have come to realize all the action is on my part and I'm starting to wonder if I should take a step back. Most of my family didn't attend my wedding because they "didn't want to travel that far." I never get invites to birthday parties or holidays, so I have to invite myself if I want to be included. When I am visiting, it doesn't seem like anyone is that interested in seeing me, and they definitely do not care about hearing what is going on with me. None of my family has visited me in my new home even though I have invited them numerous times. I have put a lot of effort in my family relationship, and I want to stop and just focus on my life with my husband. Is this normal? Can I move on and let them make the move if they want to see me? I'm exhausted.

Emily Yoffe: Maybe your family needs to hear about newfangled inventions: cars, airplanes, telephones, e-mail. Someone needs to tell them you don't have to saddle up the horses and get a tenant to watch the farm just because you want to keep in touch with a faraway family member. However, there seems to be something pathological at work here. "Family" covers a lot of ground. It's one thing to lose touch with cousins, but have your parents also forgotten that you exist? If so, you need to have an explicit talk with them about how you feel, and how to go about fixing this. And if they all continue to act as if you've snubbed and insulted them by moving on, then go ahead and move on and concentrate on your new life.