Monday, July 15, 2024

A classmate of my teenage son died by suicide. The boys had a couple of classes together, but my son didn’t know him well. I don’t know the family at all. We live in a small town, and the sense of community is a big plus here. The high school is doing an excellent job: It brought in grief counselors and therapy dogs, and it keeps its doors open after hours in case anyone needs support. My son’s teachers broke the news about the boy’s death sensitively, and my son feels OK. The issue: I am heartbroken over this teenager’s death, and I feel the need to let his family know they are in my heart. May I send a condolence note, or would it be distressing to receive one from a complete stranger?


My father died by suicide over 30 years ago. To this day, I keep the condolence notes I received in the second drawer of my desk. Some were written by strangers, and many have brought me great comfort over the years. (My favorite: from a waitress at the Rexall lunch counter where my father frequently ordered tuna sandwiches, she wrote, “always with extra pickles.”) Please write a condolence note!

A few caveats: This note is not about you — not that anything in your kind letter suggests you think it is. Steer clear of formulations such as “I don’t know if I could bear it” or “I haven’t stopped crying since I heard.” These sentiments may be true, but the point here is to sympathize with the loss of others, not to elevate your own emotions.

Also, if you know anything specific about this boy or can learn anything about him from your son, include it in your note. Seemingly picayune details — like my dad’s extra pickles — are extremely effective in evoking the flesh-and-blood person who has died. This will be a blessing to his grieving survivors. Finally, send your card by snail mail, not by email or text: The recipients have more control over its receipt that way.

I had lunch with a group of friends and paid the bill. It’s common in our friend group of recent college grads for the person who pays to send a photo of the receipt to the others, and then everyone Venmos their share. It’s a good system. But I wanted to treat everyone that day, so when the others began asking for the receipt, I said: “It’s on me!” Then people began arguing with me, saying it didn’t feel right for one person to pay. Some sent money anyway, guessing at the cost of their meal. This surprised me: I was taught there is nothing ruder than refusing a gift. Your thoughts?


Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in 15 years, a diner who wants to pay more than her fair share! I suspect some of your friends took issue with the fact that you made this decision unilaterally. Others may be worried that you have changed the payment system going forward. I’m sorry that your intended generosity was met with resistance. In my experience, though, financial decisions involving others — even kind ones — are usually better discussed in advance.

I am a 58-year-old woman. I am single and have no children. I have a small social circle, and I have been left off plenty of guest lists as I age without a partner. Still, I am invited to holiday gatherings. Inevitably, I am asked whether I have a significant other I’d like to bring. This puts me in a terrible mood and makes it even harder to attend alone. I know it’s considerate of my hosts to ask, but wouldn’t I have told them if I had someone special in my life? What should I say?


Unless your friends are cruel, I assume their question is both basic guest-list management and an effort not to make assumptions about your life. The fact that it hurts you — and I’m sorry it does — suggests that you should talk about this with a close friend or therapist.

There’s nothing wrong with being single, of course! But if it makes you feel bad, it’s a worthy subject for examination — not for a snappy comeback. And if it would make you feel better, ask your hosts if you can bring a friend.

The granddaughter of my deceased brother-in-law was married last year. I went to her bridal shower and wedding and gave generous gifts. She had her first child recently. I attended a baby shower and gave another gift. Now, the new mother has posted on Facebook that her baby has so much “stuff” that she encourages checks for the holidays to help meet the baby’s needs. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have considered a gift. Am I obligated to?


Of course not! If you didn’t intend to give the child a gift, the Facebook post is irrelevant. Why would you think otherwise? It is also no reason, in my view, to drag an (enthusiastic) new mother about a social media post — though your recitation of gifts and the subject line on your email (“When is enough enough?”) make me suspect that was your intention. Let’s be nice.

For help with your awkward situation, send a question to, Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on the platform X.

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