Dear Prudence

Making Up for Murder

How do I reach out to a family irrevocably damaged by a member of my own?

Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
Two years ago, my adored 28-year-old younger brother committed suicide after murdering his estranged wife’s new boyfriend. My brother had depression and anger issues, but I will never understand the chain of events that made this act viable in his head. This has been devastating to my family. I did not know the man he murdered, but I know many of his friends. I tried to not mourn publicly, but I did not handle things well in social media. Sometimes I would mention my loss and these mutual friends were kind to me, but I still feel that I should have kept my mouth shut. I know that I had no fault in my brother’s act, but since then I have isolated myself from them in person out of shame and associated guilt. (I am working on this with a therapist and in support groups.) I would like to reconnect with these mutual friends at Christmas when I return to my hometown, but I’m scared and worry that I will cause pain. The main issue is that the victim’s brother also returns home for Christmas. My family has not reached out to the victim’s family, which has been pretty much the universal recommendation. However, it is entirely likely that I could run into the brother, which terrifies me. I would actually like to have a meeting with him to convey how sorry I am for his loss, and that we have much in common. He may even have questions I can answer. But I fear reaching out and causing pain, while I also fear an unexpected meeting in a social setting. What should I do?

—A Sister

Dear Sister,
As you and your family know, you are also victims of your brother’s unspeakable act. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was caught because his brother David turned him into the FBI. After David got the $1 million reward, he paid his lawyers then distributed the rest to the victims and their families. He and his wife also wrote letters of apology, not because they had been aware of his brother’s crimes at the time—as you did not know your brother’s plans—but as a way to deal with their own guilt, grief, and pain afterward. Not all of the families responded, but a few did. I support your desire to reach out to the victim’s family. But it must be done with delicacy and with the knowledge of the limitations of this act. Before you do it, talk to a lawyer just to clarify how you might word a letter. You don’t want to unwittingly leave an impression that your family knew of your brother’s intentions. Then I also think it would be worth it to get advice from a victim’s organization on what such a letter should say. (Here are two: Parents of Murdered Children and Compassionate Friends.) Yes, you are suffering, but in reaching out to the victim’s family you have to be careful not to make parallels between your two situations. Your focus should be on your sorrow over their pain, not on the pain you have in common. It also would be a good idea to ask a mutual friend to deliver the letter so that it doesn’t come as a shock. Doing this won’t return your social relationships to the way they were. But taking this action should make it easier for you to come home and to reconnect with friends, who surely have compassion for your agony. By contacting the victim’s family, when and if you run into the victim’s friends and loved ones, you will have the words from the letter ready so that you can express your sorrow in person instead of feeling you should duck away. As you’ve recognized, social media is great for a lot of things, but it is too blunt an instrument to deal with the complications of such a painful situation. Continue to work this through privately with your therapist and support group.


Dear Prudence: Hair-Raising Dilemma

Dear Prudence,
I’m in my mid-20s. My mother divorced my good-for-nothing father when I was little and then went through a string of useless boyfriends. She has finally found a wonderful man and they are engaged. The problem is her insistence on blending his extended family with ours at holidays. Our side of the family only sees each other at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many of us feel that it is important that we spend that time together, instead of shouting to each other across a huge dining table filled with people we don’t know. I have been tasked with bringing up to my mother that people weren’t happy with Thanksgiving and are concerned about Christmas. When I broached this with her she became upset and accused me of not wanting her to move forward with her life. Spending the holidays apart from my mother is the last thing I want, but the rest of my extended family has been discussing holding Christmas festivities somewhere different if my mother decides to try blending the families again. My mother is incredibly stubborn and has never accepted being wrong before. How do I show my mother that we are all happy for her, but that her major life change shouldn’t mean erasing all of our holiday traditions and the precious little time spent together without strangers?


Dear Conflicted,
I know what you mean about traditions. Yours is this year’s version of the annual letter I run that can be summed up as, “I want Christmas to always be the way it used to be.” I assume your side of the family has expanded and contracted over the years as people marry, divorce, children get born, and loved ones die. Your mother is now in the incoming tide phase of this ebb and flow. I’m a little confused about the logistics here. If your mother is the hostess, then she has the prerogative to make up the guest list and people should be grateful she’s doing it. If others don’t want to come, that’s an individual choice. Keep in mind that these “strangers” are going to be part of your family, so after a couple of get-togethers they will become familiar faces. But if the celebration is at someone else’s house, then your mother has to check and see if it’s feasible for her to add to the list and by how many. It’s one thing to ask to bring her fiancé and his children. But it’s burdensome and presumptuous if she expects to include, to mix holiday metaphors, his mishpocheh. It’s an unpleasant personality trait to have gone through life never able to acknowledge being wrong. But knowing that about your mother tells you what you’re dealing with. Even if most of the family decides Christmas has gotten too unwieldy, maybe there’s still a compromise and someone could host a drop-by on Christmas Eve or even the 26th, for those who didn’t get to see each other Christmas Day.


Dear Prudence,
I’m in human resources at an organization with a conservative culture. As part of vetting candidates, I Google them, check Facebook, etc., to see if there is anything of an embarrassing nature. One young woman candidate, age 23, has me stymied. She has a professional-quality website chronicling her many accomplishments and a perfectly innocent Twitter account. Her recommendations are lovely. But everything on the Web about her has happened since 2009, the year she graduated from college. No Facebook account, no Myspace. I find this weird. I have never known a person under 25 who wasn’t all over the Web in high school and college. I thought of asking her, but if she’s clever enough to sanitize a Web presence, wouldn’t she have a story ready, too? I don’t want make unfair assumptions or ask an inappropriate question, but I also don’t want to be the idiot who hired someone who was in a sex scandal and have my career go down in flames. Should I take a chance? Is there a perfectly logical explanation I have not thought of?


Dear Stumped,
How amazing that someone might get rejected for a job because the Internet is not full of her idiotic, juvenile activities. Think about how silly it sounds that you would find it reassuring if there were Facebook pictures of her at drunken frat parties or if you could read her deepest Myspace thoughts from high school. As hard as it may be to accept, some people just aren’t that interested in social media and their absence from it does not signify that they were part of an underage sex ring. In doing your due diligence you’ve discovered that as this young woman launched her career, she has a created a professional presence on the Web. She sounds exactly like the kind of person your conservative company would welcome. Don’t punish her because you can’t find evidence of something she has to hide.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I do not have children, while our combined siblings have 10 children among them. We love them dearly and end up purchasing birthday and Christmas gifts for each. Our family draws names for our annual Christmas exchange with the adults, but each year the number of gifts we purchase is much greater than what we receive. My husband and I work in the nonprofit sector, so Christmas is an annual financial burden for us. We sometimes forego buying gifts for each other in order to purchase for our extended families. What should we do?

—Auntie Scrooge

Dear Auntie,
Yours is another example of how traditions should be flexible so that they can accommodate the changing needs of the family members. Alert your siblings that you need to get out of the adult gift exchange, but you’ll continue to get something for the children for Christmas. Then instead of a present for each, make one donation per family to an organization that will allow the kids to decide and follow up on how their gift—which can be $25 or so—is spent. Kiva and Heifer International are two that do wonderful work and whose lessons will be more meaningful than another toy that’s quickly discarded.


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