Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. I don’t want an urn of ashes going down the aisle at my wedding: I am getting married next summer to my wonderful fiancé. We have asked his niece to be a flower girl along with my niece at the wedding. Just over two years ago, my sister-in-law lost “Baby Ella” at about 5 months. It was a very difficult time for all of them. Baby Ella is now in a small, sealed urn and travels with the family everywhere. It is sweet, and it helps them deal with the loss. I always figured that Baby Ella would come to the wedding but assumed that she would sit in the pew at the church. Over the holidays, my sister-in-law brought up how sweet it would be if my niece (her daughter) carried Baby Ella down the aisle! I don’t want to be a bridezilla but I’d much rather she carry a bouquet or basket of flowers than an urn of ashes. My sister-in-law had another baby this fall who will be too young to walk down the aisle. Am I a jerk for suggesting that maybe Baby Ella could stay with her and the new baby in the pew? I would get a small flower bouquet matching the wedding party’s flowers to set with the urn.
A: I don’t know how large or heavy the urn is, or how difficult it would be for a little girl with possibly less-than-excellent motor skills to carry down an aisle compared with a posy, but I’m inclined to encourage you to at least consider incorporating Ella’s urn into the ceremony, because it sounds like a lovely, meaningful way this part of your family is able to feel like they don’t have to hide their grief. If your sister-in-law is open to the idea of wrapping a small spray of flowers around the urn, that might be a lovely way to blend celebration with mourning. That said, I certainly don’t think it’s overbearing or dismissive to say, “I’d love to set aside an aisle for Baby Ella and Baby [New Name] toward the front, and have [Niece] carry a bouquet.” Since your sister-in-law asked in what sounds like a fairly gentle manner, my guess is she’d be open to a compromise. Please let us know what you two are able to agree upon. I’d love to hear more about how the ceremony ends up.
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Q. I likened losing my dog to my boyfriend losing his dad: A month ago my beloved dog “Izzy” collapsed, and I rushed her to the vet. I called and texted my fiancé, “Brett,” and left messages asking him to come meet me there. Brett was at a football game, though, and told me he didn’t hear or see my messages until much later. By that time Izzy had died a painful, horrible death.
Brett was present when his father died of a heart attack. When I came home the night of Izzy’s death, I’m ashamed to admit, I broke down sobbing in front of him. Brett blew up at me and spent the next few days reminding me how much worse losing a parent is than losing a dog. I didn’t intend to imply that our loss or experiences were the same and feel so ashamed that I hurt Brett by doing so. Since then I haven’t been able to talk about losing Izzy with anyone, because I’m afraid to do the same thing again. I thought I could manage this until Brett’s cousin told me that Brett received my messages at the football game and chose not to leave. I’m so confused by why Brett would lie about this, and I want to ask if what his cousin said is true, but I’m worried I’d hurt him again. How can I broach this subject while being sensitive to Brett’s grief?
A: I’m a little unclear on how, exactly, you compared the two experiences. It doesn’t actually sound like you tried to draw any comparison yourself. Brett was the person who brought up his father. All you did was cry because your dog died and ask your fiancé to spend time with you.
Unless you said, “This is just like when you lost your dad, Brett”—which it really doesn’t sound like you did!—simply expressing grief about the loss of Izzy in no way slights or diminishes Brett’s loss of a parent.
It sounds like what actually happened was this: Your dog died unexpectedly, you were understandably devastated, and your fiancé decided to ignore you because he was doing something he considered more fun, then attempted to guilt you into shutting up about your sadness because his father died in front of him. He behaved coldly and cruelly toward you. Please don’t worry about “hurting” him by asking him why he lied about the time he saw your text messages. You shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about sobbing in front of a partner when your dog dies unexpectedly. That’s a perfectly natural and understandable thing to do, and Brett’s distance and cruelty can’t all be hung on his past trauma. He chose to ignore you and then, unprompted, told you that it was insensitive to cry about your dead dog because his father died. You have a right to be upset with him, you have a right to ask him to explain himself, and you have a right to determine whether you want to marry someone who seeks to one-up you when you experience loss.
Q. Sister: I am out of the house and on my own but I live nearby. My sister is 14. Three years ago, Dad god married to a new woman named “Sara.” My sister and Sara got along in the past, but Sara got on the baby track fast. She is currently pregnant with baby No. 3. The house is messy and noisy, and my sister hates it. She is not getting any sleep and resents getting pressed into baby wrangling as soon as she steps in the house. Since school started, she has been sleeping over nearly every night at my place. I don’t mind, but Sara does. She complains that I am undermining the family and encouraging my sister’s rebellion. Dad isn’t home often and doesn’t really care. My sister is a good kid, gets straight A’s, etc. She just wants to get a full night’s sleep.
How do I deal with Sara?
A: Since Sara isn’t your mom and you aren’t financially dependent on her in any way, I think your best move is to gently redirect her energies: “I’m sorry this is hard for you! Things are working really well for me and [Sister], and I’m not interested in changing the arrangement that helps her get enough sleep to do well in school. I hope you and Dad are able to have a helpful conversation about child care, but I’ve got to go.” As long as she’s not taking her anger out on your sister, you don’t have to worry too much about frustrating her. I do think you should stay polite and sympathetic-seeming as much as possible to avoid antagonizing her needlessly, but Sara’s real problem is that her husband has mostly abandoned his share of child-raising duties. Harassing you because you make it a little harder to force a teenager into babysitting around the clock isn’t the answer to her troubles.
Q. Sperm donor complications: It is common knowledge in my family that my father was a sperm donor 30 years ago, and we are all pretty accepting of the fact that he probably has donor children out there. He has never expressed interest in contacting any of them. Recently, my go-getter cousin who has a history of overstepping boundaries used an online DNA test, through which she found many genetic first cousins—my father’s donor children, who are adults now. She has eagerly contacted them, explaining who my father is and giving details about our family. On at least one account, she repeatedly messaged someone who ignored her first message. My father, as well as the rest of my immediate family, is very uncomfortable with this. It comes off as the sperm donor using his niece to contact these people, and she gives us all a bad name by harassing people who may not want anything to do with their donor. Is it within my father’s rights to ask her to please stop this kind of contact, or is she free to annoy these people who are technically her genetic family too?
A: He’s within his rights to ask her to stop, although I’m afraid she is still free to annoy these people even after he makes his request. But yes, by all means, someone should tell her, politely, to knock it off, that the decision to start looking for their biological relatives ought to be left to the individuals in question, and that harassing someone who has never responded to any of your messages is the height of bad manners.
Q. Reconciliation with dying father: My abusive father is dying. For the past five years, since well before he was diagnosed with the cancer that is now terminal, I have been urging him to go to therapy, to do the work needed to acknowledge his abusive actions and reconcile with me and my sisters. He would give lip service to what I said, then find excuses and put it off for months and years at a time. Three years ago, I stopped responding to him reaching out unless he made efforts to do the work I asked. Unsurprisingly, this has meant I have had very little contact with him for the past three years.
Now that he’s dying, he has reached out a couple of times saying that he wants to talk and “make things right” before he passes. But, after sending a quick text like that, he goes back to radio silence or refuses to engage with me unless I stick only to small talk like the weather and how my job is going. If he would just not reach out to me, I would be fine. I accepted a long time ago that I would likely never see my father again. Or, if he were actually engaged in some kind of real work, I would be willing to engage there. But I feel like I am getting whiplash, and I am completely uncertain of what the right thing to do here is. Do I trust his words and engage with him honestly and hold him to account for the things he has done? Or do I trust his actions—which have been a continuation of the same pattern of trying to keep me off balance and control the relationship—and just peace out?
A: The decision is absolutely yours, and you may decide that having a final meeting with him, even if he hasn’t done the work, is something you’re interested in doing for your own peace of mind. You are allowed to want to get coffee with your dying father even if you realize his interest in reconciliation has only ever been surface-level. But if you aren’t interested, and if you don’t think it would do anything for your peace of mind or sense of closure or anything else, I think you have excellent reasons to suspect that nothing substantial has changed, that your father has no meaningful sense of what “making things right” would actually look like on his part, and that what he is offering you is continued lip service.
Q. Slighted wedding guest: My old friend “Jenny” has been driving herself crazy with her wedding. My partner and I RSVP’d but Jenny asked me if my partner would mind staying home since the wedding list was “overbooked.” We are not married but have been together 10 years. But we agreed. Only I have learned from other people that Jenny has made this same request, but only of those who are queer. My partner gets asked to stay home but a fellow friend’s new girlfriend of three months is coming. My partner is hurt and I am outraged. We considered ourselves close to Jenny. Three years ago, we took off vacation days to help her move across state lines! We haven’t really seen each other since, but we have kept in touch with email and social media. I’d rather Jenny had the courage to be honest about the bigotry than make up a story about being overbooked. Is this worth confronting her over or should I just decline and cut this relationship off?
A: If she’s a long-standing friend, I’d give her the opportunity to offer an explanation and talk to her first. “I know planning a wedding can be difficult and stressful, but I was surprised to hear that a number of your queer friends have all been asked to leave their partners at home, yet a number of straight people are bringing dates. This really hurt. Can we talk about whatever’s going on?”
Before doing that, though, I’d try to make sure of the possibly incorrect secondhand information you’ve picked up, and to go into it with an open-minded and friendly disposition. You can always ratchet up your anger or disapproval if you need to, but if there’s even a chance that you’ve misunderstood something (or that someone else misunderstood something and transmitted their misunderstanding to you), you don’t want to open the conversation angry and have to walk it back later.
Q. No quid pro quo: I work in education. A few years ago I worked a yearlong temporary teaching assignment and was mentored by its original post holder while she worked in a more senior assignment for the district. Let’s call her “S.” She is well connected and enjoys a positive reputation of integrity and professionalism. Everyone knows and likes her. At the end of the year, she resumed her position at the school site, within the highly competitive district, and I moved on to another district. After hearing S. describe how she wanted a side teaching hustle, I reached out to my alma mater’s professors to introduce S. in the event they were hiring. One professor ended up hiring S. to work a side assistant professor gig teaching in the evenings. A win!
S. and I remained on friendly, professional terms: I recommended conferences she would attend and we would see each other and exchange pleasantries. Each time I saw her, I’d casually ask about any open positions she knew about within the district. She promised to tell me if something came up, but I never heard from her. This year, I invited S. to my holiday party, which she had to decline at the last minute. At the party, several teacher friends talked shop and it turns out … S. left her position for a more senior role a year ago. Not only has she never mentioned anything about any positions coming down the pike, but she certainly said nothing about her own position opening up, for which I would have been qualified.
Hers is a large, tough district to get into, especially with our specialized field; it seems like everyone knows someone and teachers within the district get top priority, if jobs get posted at all. I’m upset and having a hard time shaking the feeling. Frankly, this makes me think less of her. I know kindness isn’t meant to be transactional, but she was all too happy to accept my help and she’s always professed to know nothing about any openings.
I wrote her and asked: “Hey a little bird told me you have moved on. Is there exciting news to tell?” But I have heard nothing back. I’m working hard to apply to the district every year, but I’m frustrated hearing, “Sorry, we went with an internal candidate,” if anything at all. Her heads-up (let alone a positive reference) could have helped. My husband says do nothing. I don’t want to be a stalker. I’m not looking for any confrontations or bridge-burnings for sure. Is there a skillful way to address this? Am I crazy to be upset?
A: There’s not a skillful way to address this with S., no. She’s made it very clear that for whatever reason, she’s not interested in talking to you or helping you get into that particularly competitive district, so any continued attempts to contact her after she ignored your last message would only reinforce her belief that you can’t read other people’s signals and don’t know how to take no for an answer. That might not be fair, and I certainly understand why you’re frustrated, but it’s the unfortunate reality of your situation that any attempt to hound her for an answer will only make you look worse. You did her a favor and she didn’t do you one in return. That’s not a knock against the practice of doing favors in general, I don’t think, but it does mean that you should consider S. someone you will neither give anything to, nor expect anything from, in the future.
I don’t know what happened at that last job—maybe it turns out that position wasn’t actually what she’d been expecting, maybe the environment was totally frazzled and hostile, maybe she had an unexpected crisis she had to deal with and took a last-minute posting somewhere else for totally unrelated reasons. Maybe she doesn’t actually think you’re qualified at all, and didn’t know how to say so without being rude. Maybe she knew they already had a candidate preselected whom they were going to hire to replace her and that applying for the job would have been a waste of your time. I don’t know! Your husband has the best advice, even if it may not be completely satisfying. You may never know why S. took the job and then slowly phased you out. But there’s no way you’re going to get an answer out of her, so the best thing you can do is try to redirect your energies elsewhere.
Q. Re: I don’t want an urn of ashes going down the aisle at my wedding: While I sympathize with losing a child and needing to grieve, isn’t two years a bit long to be carrying an urn with you everywhere? I know there are people who have loved ones’ ashes made in jewelry to have with them always, but that’s not what this is. It feels like her sister never continued moving forward with processing this trauma.
A: I’ll note that I’ve gotten a couple of responses along these lines, so there’s at least a significant minority opinion to dismiss the request. But I will say that I think calling their grief “bizarre” or saying “two years is a bit long” is ungenerous. Absolutely, it’s certainly possible that people can make unreasonable demands of others in the name of grief. I don’t mean to advocate for saying “Yes” unthinkingly to every single request made by a grieving person. But I also think that often, perhaps too often in this country, the general attitude toward grief is “Hurry up and make this convenient for other people.” I think it’s valuable to look for opportunities to make room for public grief and mourning in our lives and in our rituals. (“In the midst of life we are in death.”) The letter writer’s sister-in-law isn’t proposing carrying a casket up the aisle, or turning the wedding into a funeral. A small, baby-size urn carried by a flower girl during the rest of the processional doesn’t strike me as an outsize attempt to incorporate grief into a celebration. But I also don’t think the letter writer has to do anything, and it would be perfectly polite and kind to ask her sister-in-law to keep the urn in the aisle.
Q. Re: I likened losing my dog to my boyfriend losing his dad: I am particularly troubled by Brett spending “the next few days” guilting the letter writer over their grief.
A: That struck me as especially worrisome too. Spending days harping on the subject, when I’m pretty sure the letter writer never even invited the comparison herself in the first place, suggests that he’s going out of his way to make her feel guilty for losing her dog. Coupled with the revelation that he saw her message about the dog dying and decided to finish watching a football game instead, it all makes Brett seem like a very cold, calculating, manipulative type of person.
Q. Re: I likened losing my dog to my boyfriend losing his dad: I lost my dad recently, and while these are not people I meet frequently per se, I’m so baffled by those who feel the need to one-up me on the sadness chart. In other words, to point out the ways in which a loss they experienced, or that someone they know experienced, was more tragic. One of the things I’m learning through this process is that people are strange, and grief affects us all in different ways. My friend lost her beloved puppy a bit before I lost my dad, and honestly? We’re both just really fucking sad. There’s no reason at all to step on each other’s sadness. We can share our sadness together and there’s no need to compare. So I’ve absolved myself of the guilt of privately judging anyone who tries to do this to me, and the letter writer should too.
A: A number of other people who have lost both pets and parents have written in to say that they too have found it relatively easy and intuitive to hold those very different types of losses in balance, and that they’ve never felt like someone else’s sadness over a dog or cat was an attempt to compete with the loss of a human being. I think Brett’s unspoken attempt to claim that anyone who’d lost a parent would naturally respond this way to someone else losing a pet is total bullshit and a patent attempt at control.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone! See you all next week.
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