Dear Prudence

Help! My Friend’s Life Was Derailed by an Awful Tragedy, but I’m Sick of Hearing About It.

She doesn’t have to be “over it,” but I can’t listen anymore.

One woman covers her face in exasperation next to another woman covering her face and surrounded by teardrop graphics
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Prudence,

I have been friends with a woman, “Kari,” for almost 20 years. We met in a mommy group for our now 18-year-old children. She has six children ages 4 to 21; I have two, ages 18 and 14. We share similar interests and have the same profession, so we would meet with the kids and visit. I considered us casual friends who helped each other out when needed.

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Unfortunately, seven years ago, she lost a child to an undiagnosed heart problem. She was rocking the 9-month-old when the child stopped breathing. It was exceptionally traumatic with paramedics trying to revive the child in front of her, a monthlong hospital stay until they decided the child would never recover, and an investigation by CPS. I did all I could to support her over the last few years, but it’s never enough.

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She becomes hysterical whenever she hears sirens because it reminds her of that night, she constantly complains that she will never be happy again and she doesn’t understand why God doesn’t take her too, and she regularly gets upset that others don’t understand the devastation her life is. Her oldest joined the military as soon as they could because they couldn’t stand to be at home anymore, and her next oldest has gone no-contact because they say Kari only cares about the dead child.

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Last week she was complaining about how horrible her life is, and I suggested again that perhaps a therapist might be helpful. She started yelling that therapy wouldn’t help because it wouldn’t bring her baby back and what a horrible friend I was for suggesting it—didn’t I understand this is her life now? She accused me of not understanding how terrible things are because I have a “perfect life.”

I don’t know where to go from here. I’m not expecting her to be “over it,” but I can’t listen anymore. Our kids are involved in groups together so I can’t completely avoid her. I want to let her know I’m not available for further friendship without making her feel abandoned or make things more awkward when we do interact. We have mutual friends/professional contacts so she may also try to make people take sides.

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—I’m Not Listening Anymore

Dear Not Listening,

This is really hard. Nobody wants to feel that they’re facing a deadline for being “over” a tragic loss, or that it’s not OK to talk about an event that has derailed their life. Even though that’s not the message you want to send to Kari, it actually is the way you feel—you’re done hearing about this. And she will feel abandoned if you tell her that you no longer want to be friends. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to decide you can’t take any more and draw a line. After all, you have every right to decide how you spend your time and how supportive you can be. But you shouldn’t delude yourself into thinking you’ll be able to do this without potentially being seen as cruel by Kari and others. Sometimes doing what you need to do means being at peace with being judged or criticized.

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I would just give some careful thought to how you want to communicate the end of the friendship to her. Is it “I’m hurt that you rejected my suggestion to seek therapy and minimized my struggles by characterizing my life as ‘perfect’ ”? Or “It’s too frustrating to hear your complaints when you are not doing anything to move forward or begin to feel better”? Or something else? In this conversation, I do think it would be worthwhile to give her one more nudge toward support—maybe instead of a therapist, she could seek out a grief support group where she’ll be able to connect with people who have suffered similar losses.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a mental health professional having worked in the field for over 30 years. I love what I do and find it very meaningful. I’ve helped people with every sort of issue, every age, race, religion, sexual identity, etc., and I feel privileged to be trusted and respected in my work. Currently I work with SPMI (serious persistent mental illness) clients. My issue is that when the usual question of “What do you do?” comes up at every social gathering, and I answer as generally as possible, I get a blank stare and uncomfortable silence ensues. I never get to share my fascinating work! Why does everyone listen with rapt attention to those who detail their boring business dealings ad infinitum?

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—Sad at the Cocktail Party

Dear Sad at the Cocktail Party,

If you want to get people interested, stop answering as generally as possible. Give them a little more detail—or perhaps an example of the type of patient you might treat and the context in which you treat them. Define “serious persistent mental illness” and what it looks like in people’s lives. Then say you find it really fascinating and love to talk about it (while respecting your patients’ privacy, of course). I guarantee this will get more questions than “I work with SPMI clients.”

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Dear Prudence,

In the grand scheme of things, my problem isn’t all that horrible, it’s just a persistent one. For the last seven years, I have cared for a feral cat that was already here when we moved into this house. A neighbor who lives a few doors down the street considers herself responsible for this sweet animal. She regularly brings cat food, tries to pay for vet visits, and will watch this cat and our own cats whenever we go on vacation. Sounds ideal, right? Only it’s not.

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I’ve tried befriending this neighbor, and although she is always making vague promises to share a glass of wine, even to the point of suggesting the wine I should buy or dropping off bottles of her own, she never actually shows up for a glass. She sneaks into the yard to drop off canned cat food on the back porch, and then sends a text telling me there is a case by the back door. I’ve stopped telling her about vet visits because she will either try to pay the vet before I get there or she’ll leave me a check for $100 with the cat food. During last year’s freeze (which killed our power for five days of subfreezing temperatures), she donated at least $100 worth of firewood to help heat our house, so I tore up her $100 check for the last vet visit, thinking she’d call it even. Now she’s dropping off plants to replace what we lost in the freeze, bottles of wine she’ll never drink with me, and cartons of eggs she gets from a friend who raises chickens. She will never accept payment for anything, even though she presses money on me in the form of checks I refuse to cash.

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I believe she has drawn very clear boundaries on any friendship that might develop between us, and I’m OK with that—we’re friendly enough. I get it. But I am very uncomfortable with the barrage of money, eggs, plants, and wine. I’ve repeatedly told her I don’t need help with the feral cat—an old cat who isn’t all that long for this world anyway. I’ve asked her to stop being so generous, but I don’t want to offend her by being more forceful. Am I doomed to accept her generosity until the cat dies, or is there a polite way out of this dynamic that’s been reduced to a mercenary experience for me?

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—Mee-Oww

Dear Mee-Oww,

It sounds like this is her (slightly strange) way of being neighborly and connecting with you. Maybe she’s shy or socially awkward and can’t bring herself to have an actual in-person visit, but wants to show that she cares. But I can understand why the excessive generosity might make you uncomfortable. If I were you, I’d let her pay for the cat-related stuff. It seems she really thinks this animal is hers, since she was caring for it before you moved in. Let her have that! Why not? You could always take the money you don’t spend or food you don’t use and donate it to an animal shelter. And take a similar approach when the firewood, plants, eggs, and random checks feel like too much.

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You could warn her by saying something like “Neighbor, thank you so much for all the items you’ve dropped off for me. I really have everything I need and don’t like to accumulate too many extra items or too much extra food, especially when I know so many of our neighbors may be in need. If I can’t use something, I’ll just post it in our local Buy Nothing group or bring it to the community pantry, and if I have the opportunity I’ll make sure to credit you for your generosity.” Maybe if you do this a few times and report the results to her, she’ll realize it would be more efficient to give stuff to someone who actually needs it instead of making you the middleman.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

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