Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
About six months ago, a friend of mine got a bad diagnosis. Initially it looked like “Jane” would need surgery followed by months of debilitating treatments. Since Jane lives alone, her friends quickly organized a group chat on a social media app to coordinate her care: accompanying her to medical appointments, cooking and cleaning, etc. The first order of business, though, was the initial medical response. Jane appeared to designate one close friend to be her spokeswoman and update the rest of us on the outcome of the surgery via the group chat. Well, the news that came over the chat from this person was that Jane had had a stroke of luck. The doctors who had given her the initial diagnosis found, when they operated, that the problem was far less dire than they’d initially thought, and the tests they did as part of the operation all came back normal. There was much jubilation in this group chat (I added my own “yaaay!”) and then there was silence. No further messages came through the chat.
I am not close with anyone in this friend group, so I had no occasion to speak individually with any of its members. I know that when people get sick, the last thing they want is a flood of messages asking “how are you?” But I figured if Jane were still in a bad place, the chat would be active and we’d all be helping her. So I assumed she was doing better. After a few weeks I reached out to Jane and asked how she was doing. She didn’t respond. I tried calling and left a message generally wishing her well and hoping we could talk. No response. I texted a couple of times over the next few months, wished her Happy New Year, but never heard back. I started to feel like a creep sending all these unanswered messages. I thought of reaching out to someone from the chat and asking how Jane was, but I thought that might be even creepier—“Jane isn’t talking to me so I was wondering if she’s OK” felt like a complaint. Especially because Jane’s social media seemed to show she was out and about, even traveling abroad.
I was sad to think Jane didn’t want to be friends anymore, so I decided to send her a note acknowledging what seemed like a reality—that she didn’t want to talk to me—and letting her know that if her feelings changed in the future I’d be happy to reconnect. Her response shocked me. She said I had totally dropped the ball, and that I should have been “proactive and find out what’s needed.” It turned out she DID need treatment and DID go through all the hard times she—and we, I thought —were preparing for at the beginning. But I totally did not know about it! I feel terrible. Is there anything else I can or should be doing? How did I mess this up so badly?
— Absent Friend
Dear Absent Friend,
Screenshots! Receipts! Seriously, Jane needs to see what the friend said and why you got the impression that she was fine. Paired with another sincere apology: “Jane, I know you might not feel like hearing from me right now, and I totally understand because from your end, it feels like I abandoned you. And in a sense I did. When I saw the attached message from Designated Close Friend saying you were healthy and would not need any treatments, I never would have imagined that you still had a long medical road ahead of you. There must have been a massive misunderstanding, and whatever it was, I really regret not being there for you while you were sick. I’m so happy you’re healthy now and if this clears things up at all, I hope we can spend some time together soon.”
If that doesn’t work, take some solace in the fact that it’s not like you totally ghosted on Jane after the misleading good news. She may have been too ill to reply, but you actually did try to reach out a few times—I don’t think you did anything wrong here.
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A cousin of mine recently died abruptly at the age of 40. We were only a few years apart in age, and although we weren’t close, we grew up in the same small town and had a few friends in common as kids. Her immediate family did not share the cause of death publicly and only shared with my family that she had become abruptly ill before she died. It’s not inconceivable that she may have overdosed on drugs either accidentally or on purpose. In the often small-minded community that we are from, either could be cause for scorn, so I don’t blame the family for being tight-lipped about it. However, it’s really hard to find closure without knowing what happened, and having been “protected” from family truths as a child, I am sensitive about the possibility of finding out from the rumor mill instead. The other cousin I asked didn’t know anything more than I do, and I don’t want to poke the fresh wound of my cousin’s immediate family. Our state even seals death certificates, so I wouldn’t be able to look it up for 25 years. How should I proceed? Ask a mutual acquaintance at the risk of spurring the rumor mill? Or just let it go?
— Caught in the Act
Dear Caught in the Act,
I totally, totally understand being curious about this. As a nosy person myself, I get it. But it sounds like you simply weren’t close enough to your cousin to receive this information. Most of your connection to her was based on living in the same town and having friends in common, you weren’t in the loop about her illness, and you weren’t on whatever text messages went out with all the details. These are all strong indicators that you are not an insider in this situation. You know exactly as much as her loved ones want people who aren’t in their inner circle to know, and I think the right thing to do is to respect that and try to make peace with having some open questions. Tell yourself that whatever rumors you hear may or may not be correct, and that the right way to honor your cousin’s memory is not to search for medical details but to reflect on what you remember about the person she was and to grieve how sad it is that her life was, for whatever reason, cut short.
This might also be a moment to reflect on your connections with family members and whether you want to nurture them more. For example, if you’re currently Facebook friends with a relative whose cause of death you would feel desperate to know, get in touch and hear about their life when they’re actually living it.
My daughter lives with her boyfriend in an apartment with a detached garage. When I was helping her by putting some items away from being stored there, I was adjusting some boxes and used condom wrappers fell to the ground. I gave it some thought at the time, and decided not to say anything to her. I thought if she knew of them, it might be embarrassing to her. If she didn’t know of them, I couldn’t think of a plausible explanation and didn’t want to cause any undue confusion or distress. Did I do the right thing by not saying anything? I threw them away.
— Unusual Discovery
Dear Unusual Discovery,
Congrats, your adult daughter has safe sex! Nothing is wrong here. And nothing needed to be discussed. You did the right thing by throwing trash away.
My husband—a very kind, supportive, and sweet man, very accomplished and hardworking—is very smelly. I mean bad body odor, but also doesn’t shampoo his hair much which exacerbates his scalp condition, and (I really hate saying this) smells after he uses the bathroom. He once got feedback about it at work, and cleaned up for a while, but then stopped again. I’ve tried to intervene kindly—I gently let him know that it was a problem a few years ago and tried to help him with it when I saw he was receptive. I got him wipes for the bathroom, let him know when things need to be tossed in the laundry, got him a special shampoo—and he does all of this for a while with good results, but forgets again.
I don’t want to make him feel bad, but I also don’t want him to smell for his sake, and mine. Do I just keep supporting him and following up/reminding him? Or do we need to try something else?
— Can’t Take the Smell
Dear Can’t Take the Smell,
Oh boy. This is a problem. But you know that, you wrote an advice column about it! What I mean is, there’s a problem beyond how he smells to you, which sounds deeply unpleasant. Behind the odor is his inability to either care about or remember or physically execute the basic, everyday life functions that keep a body from stinking. That’s a mental issue, not a physical one. You say he’s accomplished and hardworking, so it doesn’t sound like he’s so depressed that he’s too exhausted to wash his hair or wipe properly, but maybe he’s just functioning better in some areas than others. Or maybe he’s using absolutely all the energy he can muster to do his job and doesn’t have any left to keep himself clean.
I don’t think you’re going to solve this by friendly reminders and offerings of wipes. A 2019 article for Healthline by Sian Ferguson made the case for—you guessed it—therapy, reminding people who feel ashamed of their struggles with hygiene that “your therapist has probably helped people in your shoes before—and they’re there to help you, not judge you for your mental state” and including the helpful reminder, “No matter which self-care tools help you, it’s important to remind yourself that moralizing hygiene helps nobody.” Perhaps you could pass this message to you boyfriend (instead of yet another bottle of 3-in-1 shampoo conditioner and shower gel).
It sounds like you’re being extremely kind and gentle and nowhere near moralizing, but I also suggest that you make sure that you aren’t treating this issue as so shameful that you don’t nudge him to get appropriate help, just as you would for any other possible medical condition.
Catch up on this week’s Prudie.
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