Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenée Desmond-Harris discusses her response to “Get Me Out of Here” with fellow Slate writer (and also her husband) Joel Anderson.
My father passed away a week ago following a long battle with cancer. I am heartbroken not just about his death, but also about how much he suffered leading up to it. While I have been taking time to process his loss and grieve, I’m also trying not to wallow in it. My friends have been a huge source of comfort, offering not only support, but also funny distractions that make me laugh and temporarily forget about my sadness.
This brings me to my friend Charlie. When I texted him that my father had died, he didn’t respond. I have always known that emotional topics make him uncomfortable and he shies away from them at all costs, so I wasn’t expecting to receive the same level of support from him as other friends, and I was okay with that. But to not send any acknowledgement at all, not even a boilerplate “I’m sorry for your loss—it must be incredibly difficult” has left me confused.
Charlie is an extremely close friend whom I previously texted with multiple times throughout each day, but now he has gone radio silent. I tried reaching out again two days ago with a link to an article on a topic that we are both interested in—still no response.
I don’t know how to proceed. I miss my friend, and I need our fun banter more than ever. Part of me thinks I should reach out and tell Charlie that we don’t have to talk about my father, I just want to talk about something, anything. But the other part of me is a little pissed, and thinks I shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to manage his feelings when I’m the one who just lost my father. Any advice on how to proceed?
— Grieving and Confused
Read Prudie’s original response to this letter.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I would have a really, really hard time getting past this. It is not hard to send or reply to a text.
Joel Anderson: Before I jump all over Charlie, I want to be open to the idea that maybe he’s going through something very difficult right now too and staying away from his phone. It’s possible—though unlikely!
Jenée: OK, fair, it’s only been a week. I feel like that is the very upper limit of the time you get to not send a “Just seeing this, I’m so sorry about your dad, my entire house flooded and my dog had surgery” text. But you will be happy to know you had the same instinct as someone who just wrote a book on friendship. In the column I quoted Lane Moore (the author of the forthcoming book, You Will Find Your People: How to Make Meaningful Friendships as an Adult) encouraging LW to “hold space for the possibility that your friend might have his own issues with his parents that this is bringing up, or things going on in his life where he would’ve loved to say more right now, but couldn’t. That is possible!”
Joel: I’m saying! The LW’s loss could have triggered something really painful for Charlie. But, to your earlier point, I also would have a hard time not taking his absence personally. And because I’m a dude with dudes as friends, I’d actually like to drill down on what the LW means when he (I’m assuming) calls Charlie “an extremely close friend whom I previously texted with multiple times throughout each day.” As many of us know, and have read in recent years, men are notorious for having thin, superficial relationships with each other that basically ask nothing of anyone. So I want to know what the LW means here, because if an extremely close friend can’t be there for you during one of the most difficult times in your life, it probably calls for a reassessment of the friendship. Maybe Charlie is … just a friend, and not an extremely close one?
Jenée: I’m actually trying to remember whether, pre-pandemic, texting someone a few times a day would make them qualify as a good friend. I really can’t recall. But I do know it’s easy to do a lot of texting without actually being very close, depending on the quality of the texts. “Did you see this meme” is not the same as “How are you really doing? How is your heart?” (A very thoughtful friend actually sent me that recently!)
Joel: Well, you also recently showed up for a friend at her father’s funeral and repast—which y’all kept calling an “afterparty” for some reason—and that’s what an extremely close friend does. Show up. Send flowers. Order dinner. Call.
Return texts. Like, obviously not everyone can drop everything and fly somewhere for the funeral of a friend’s parent. But it seems like the bare minimum here is checking in and making sure your friend doesn’t need something, even if it’s just a few minutes to let them distract you with something light.
Jenée: Joel, the invitation called it a “fiesta,” and there were margaritas served. It WAS an afterparty!
Joel: Heh, this is a two Americas situation, but I digress. …
Jenée: Repasts are generally for “woke” (Black) people right? And he was not one. But go on.
Joel: Oh, they’re definitely for the “wokes.” But more seriously, I’m curious to know how the LW came to learn Charlie wasn’t able to handle “emotional topics.”
Jenée: Hmmm great question.
Joel: Like, did he hit the eject button when the LW brought up a previous breakup? Or talking about their childhoods? Or struggling with depression? What’s actually an emotional topic? And if that person can’t be there for you during that time, I can understand. Everyone handles things differently, right? But I hope the LW has more and better extremely close friends for these sorts of situations that only increase in frequency as we all get older.
So maybe the right thing to do here is … nothing. The LW can just wait for Charlie to inevitably show back up in his text messages and then see how he feels. Don’t respond for as long as they can help it, and then take stock of their feelings about Charlie.
Jenée: I agree. I think reaching out to say “We can talk, it doesn’t have to be about my dad, I know you get upset easily” is too much and would leave LW feeling resentful. Put him on the back burner and make room for people who are good friends AND have the ability to act like it. Hopefully with most people that’s not too much to ask.