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Responding in Kind 

Is it ever proper not to show sympathy for a death in the family?

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
Dear Social Grace,

If you're talking to a 40-year-old woman and the subject turns to parents, she might mention casually that hers died quite a few years ago. Of course, she is no longer deeply saddened by their deaths; she is just stating a simple fact. Reflexively, I say "I'm sorry" and put on a sympathetic face upon hearing of another person's dead relatives. Is this incorrect when the deaths are no longer in the immediate past and have become simply a fact of life, mentioned briefly in conversation? And is it incorrect when you're talking to a person of such an advanced age that it's practically a given that parents have passed away?

Sympathetic Ear

Dear Sympathetic Madam or Sir,

First, to soothe those for whom it may be a tender subject (we'll include a certain etiquette writer in that group), I'll say that I'm sure you don't mean to imply that 40 is an "advanced age." (Ahem.)

In time, the pain caused by the death of a parent or other loved one does ease, and one is generally able after a while to explain such deaths as simple facts. But death is a big deal -- perhaps the biggest deal there is -- and even a casual mention of a long-dead loved one should be met with an appropriate response. I can think of nothing better than a brief, simple "I'm sorry" and a sympathetic look. (The correct reply, just for the record, is "Thank you.")

Aside from your immediate question, it pains me that you imagine etiquette preventing such a kindness. Good manners exist solely to ease social interaction, and here you provide a good example of a "conversation assistant" that helps dialogue move along while perhaps making another person feel just a little bit better.

Dear Social Grace,

Is it ever improper not to send a bereavement card following a death? A friend recently mentioned to me that a mutual friend of ours, "Ellis," lost a sibling many months ago. The sibling and "Ellis" were not very close, and "Ellis" has never mentioned anything to me about it. Since I don't "officially" know about it, would it be inappropriate for me to send a card, especially several months later and given that there was a certain degree of emotional distance between them (i.e., "Ellis" may not be all that bereaved)? (I got a nice bereavement card from "Ellis" after one of my parents passed away.)

Don't Want to Appear Unkind

Dear Kind Madam or Sir,

Sending a thoughtful card is rarely "the wrong thing to do" -- one exception being when the card is in response to something that is a secret. (For example, we've previously discussed the impropriety of sending a "Get Well" card to someone who doesn't want his illness publicly known about.) I doubt that the death of Ellis' sibling is a secret; death is a matter of public record. And it's never too late to send a letter of condolence, even if you learn of a death long after it happened. Such a note (or visit, if your relationship is that close) is more a simple kindness than a social obligation, and the details of Ellis' relationship with the sibling are immaterial (it isn't for us to decide how bereaved a person may be). Your friend lost a family member, and you want to say that you are sorry for the loss. I think you should.

Dear Social Grace,

As a longtime "gun bearer," I have found that it's better not to reveal than to explain ["Armed and Courteous," July 3]. Bumping into someone is one thing. But removing your jacket? You know better -- come on. There are several methods and holsters that can provide total concealment and cannot be observed unless revealed. Other than that, discretion is the word. And keep the jacket on. (Who are you trying to impress?) It's part of the responsibility of carrying a weapon not to frighten the public.

Via the Internet

Dear Gun-Bearing Madam or Sir,

Thank you for your letter. You may be able to imagine the thrill of fear that a mild-mannered (and unarmed) etiquette columnist feels when offering correction -- gentle correction, but still -- to someone like the "Armed and Courteous" letter-writer who has a lethal weapon under his jacket. That other pistol-packing readers are backing me up is something of a relief. We agree: If you must carry a concealed weapon, it must remain concealed.

Dear Social Grace,

I'm glad you advised the person who was annoyed by the sight of his or her co-worker eating in meetings to practice patience ["Armed and Courteous," July 3]. For one thing, the treatment for eating disorders (by which American women are beset in staggering numbers) often depends on eating exactly when one is hungry, not 30 minutes before or after. The woman in the meeting may simply be practicing excellent self-care by feeding her body according to its needs, rather than according to the clock or according to the wishes of others.

Linda Atkins

Dear Ms. Atkins,

Thank you for your letter, which provides a viewpoint I hadn't considered. We agree that it should be a simple matter to ignore someone snacking during a meeting; still, if everyone else is not eating, it might seem inappropriate. If a medical condition requires that you eat at certain times of the day, you might explain that to your co-workers. No details are necessary: A simple, one-time statement -- "For my health, I must eat at certain times of the day; please excuse me" -- should do the trick.

About The Author

Social Grace


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