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Reader question #104: His wife died. Does that mean I have to be his constant comforter?

Fargo's Mike Yanagita sits at a table.

It's Mike Yanagita! He brings the awkward.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve come across a situation that has really stymied me and I wonder if you can help.  I had a friend many years ago who was sweet as pie but who could sometimes be a little needy and suffocating.  I think he had a pretty serious crush on me, but nothing ever came of it and we eventually fell out of touch as I went to another city for graduate school.

He recently found me through Facebook and sent a friend request.  I looked at his wall and saw that he is recently widowed — I mean really recently, as in, a week ago.  It doesn’t surprise me that a horrific experience like that might lead someone to go looking for old friends, but it made our initial contact a bit fraught.  I added him back and sent him a note saying that I was sorry for his loss.  I said something neutral about how it was nice to hear from him, and sad that it was under such circumstances.  I aimed to be kind but without writing emotional cheques I couldn’t cash (“can I help?” etc.).

Immediately he started Facebook-messaging me constantly, including a lot of TMI about his marriage and his wife’s illness that made me kind of uncomfortable.  He made some noises about coming to visit and having coffee sometime so we can “catch up” (we live 800 miles away from each other).  He asked for my phone number so that we could talk in real time;  when I told him (truthfully) that I don’t use the phone, he asked for other ways to contact me.  If I don’t respond in a day or two, he writes again and asks why I haven’t written.  He strikes me as desperately lonely… but also maybe a tiny bit stalkery?

I’m normally not too bad at dealing with this kind of situation, and if it were any other day I would just tell him to cool it and let me write back if/when I’m good and ready.  But his wife just died!  Of cancer!  How can I tell someone to PFO when his wife just died of cancer?!?  I also suspect his old crush on me might be driving some of this over-sharing, but then I hate myself because that’s a terrible thing to think about someone who’s just been widowed.

O my captain, do you have suggestions for a script to let him down easy?  I know he’s suffering terribly and I sympathize, but I don’t want to be his therapist.  The fact that he’s grieving doesn’t mean I’m required to carry on constant Facebook chatter with him when I have my own job/friends/life that I’ve built up in the decade since we spoke last.  I feel trapped by his horrible emotional situation and resentful that I can’t draw boundaries without looking insensitive.  We were friends once but he and I seem to have very different notions of what that means.

Do you have any ideas?

- Mean But Not That Mean

Dear Mean (But Not That Mean):

Here’s the deal:  You don’t actually want him in your life, and in a moment of weakness brought on by your kind sympathy for his loss, you hit “Accept Friend Request.”

Here’s the rest of the deal:  His extreme grief and loss is causing him to latch onto you and pick up old needy/stalkery habits that we hope he would not exhibit in better times.

Lots of messy emotions are flying about, but let’s stick to the facts:  1) You don’t actually want a close friendship with him.  2) There is no good way to extract yourself without causing him SOME hurt.

Here is a plan:

  • Do not IM with him ever on Facebook.  Disable all IM capabilities for the time being, and pull way back on your Facebook presence for a bit.  You have been very busy and not able to check Facebook.  Understood?  It’s not fair, but it will help to be generally absent for a bit.
  • Go about your life. Respond to his messages periodically when and if it is convenient for you – maybe once a week?  Ignore the ones where he asks why you haven’t responded as if they are not happening.  Respond briefly to other messages with some basic platitudes like “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.  I hope you are taking good care of yourself.”
  • There is no really good script for extracting yourself, because there is no script that will satisfy what he wants to hear.  He wants to hear “”I’m on a plane!  Soon I will hold your hand and get you through this terrible time!”  You want to say “Hey, good to hear from you, I didn’t think about you at all for 10 years, and now am finding it weird and smothering to be your sole emotional support system, please never visit! So sorry about your wife!”

So an imperfect script might look like this.  In response to one of his “where have you been?” messages, you can wait 5 or 6 days, and then say:

Dear ____,

I am sorry I have not gotten back to you.  I know this is a very difficult time and I cannot imagine how hard it must be for you.

This is awkward, but I want to strongly suggest that you seek out a local grief counselor or support service to talk with about your wife.  I was not lucky enough to know (your wife), and so much has changed in both of our lives the last 10 years that it is hard for me to respond to your writings about her in a meaningful way.The frequency and urgency of your messages to me  is much more than I can personally handle.  But I can see that you really need to sit down and talk with someone about this at length, and I want you to have all the care and support that you need. 

I hope you will reach out to someone who can support you the way you deserve.  I will think good thoughts for you.”

And then pull way back on contact.

I know it’s hard, and the situation is so completely fraught, but he’s really overstepping here. The best thing you can do for him is to steer him toward actual help in a way that lets him save some face, and be honest with yourself about what you are willing to give.

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10 comments
  1. robiewankenobie said:

    oh, the damage of a single mouse click. who knew?

    i think the redirect that the captain suggests is really important. you may be who he wants right now, but you aren’t who he needs. the worst case scenario would be that you would keep him on the line trying to help in some way, rather than cutting him loose and directing him towards real help.

    • k said:

      This is so on point – Who he wants, not who he needs.

      It’s important to note, LW, that you didn’t invite this type of intense contact. Usually, when we friend someone on Facebook, we think we’re going to get a window into a few brief, lighthearted details of their life. Before seeing his wall, you didn’t realize he was grieving, and before sending the message (which I assure you was probably one of 10 or 20 messages at least) you didn’t realize that your sympathy was going to be misinterpreted in this way. You seem aware of this but I wanted to emphasize, because it can be so hard to draw your boundaries when you’re the one who made the first move.

      Also, you are doing the right thing by asking how you can point him toward actual help, and discourage him from fixating on you romantically.

      • LW didn’t make the first move. Needy guy searched for her on FB and sent a friend request. Which creeps me out a bit. If my Significant Otter had passed on last week, I would certainly not be looking up old crushes on FB.

        Hopefully this guy is just short on social capital (showing off my new buzzword learned from 8/29 post at Get Rich Slowly; it means “friends”) and not actually seeking a new beau at this time. But either way, say “sorry I can’t help you” and run, run like the wind.

        • k said:

          True! I somehow missed that detail.

          I can imagine spending time looking people up in order to feel less lonely, but yeah.

  2. Hanna said:

    You aren’t being mean, LW. And you won’t be being mean by gently letting him know you can’t be the friend he wants you to be right now. This isn’t an excuse, its the plain truth. You have been really kind, but it wouldn’t even really be the right thing to do to engage too much more with him on this level if you really feel creeped out (I imagine the creeped-outness has to affect your capacity to empathize, which he will eventually notice and be hurt by). I agree with the Captain that he is likely to be a little hurt, but that hurt wouldn’t really be coming from you. Don’t feel guilty.

  3. karinacinerina said:

    Captain Awkward: You are amazing. LW: You are a good person to want to kindly get yourself the space you need. It is merciful to him and to you to follow the Captain’s perfect script. You don’t not care at all, and you DO sincerely want him to get the help he clearly needs. I am grateful that there are compassionate people like yourself out there who try to do the right thing when someone is in crisis. He may be overstepping bounds but it would be easy to excuse it away due to his terrible place in his life. The terrible place is temporary in its acute emergent nature, but the bounds will then forever be overstepped.
    HUGS to everyone.

  4. Excellent advice, Cap’n. I’d add: it’s possible he will respond in a very angry, spiteful way to you, so psychologically brace yourself for that. People in pain often lash out, and the bereaved are in pain. Look at how often families fall out after a death.

  5. M(BNTM) said:

    Hi all. Letter-writer here.

    Words can’t express how grateful I am to the Captain and to all of you for your replies. Even before reading this post, I’d been thinking about some of the things you recommended — turning off chat, making a point of announcing on my wall that I was too busy to use Facebook much (which was true, but which I don’t usually feel the need to announce), etc. But when it came to addressing him specifically, I got a lot of inspiration out of the script that was provided here, which had exactly the balance of firmness and kindness that I’ve been seeking. Thank you. Thank you also for the pitch-perfect description of my inner monologue (“Please never visit!”) that made me LOL in nervous relief when I read it.

    The ending of this story is a bit anticlimactic. After spending hours crafting a response and feeling queasy with worry when I hit “send”, I got a curt message from him saying that I’d made myself “loud and clear” and that he “won’t bother me again.” The end.

    I don’t know if it’s a passive-aggressive way to get me to rush in and say “No, no, no, don’t be that way!” and to get me all embroiled in his business, or whether he is really feeling so defeated and miserable that he just retreated without a fight. Of course my temptation is to engage, but it’s a temptation I’m going to resist, because I’ve already gotten upset enough about this and I really can’t afford any more time worrying about it.

    I wish him well. Thank you all so much for understanding.

    • JenniferP said:

      Take the victory! You got what you wanted. Resist the temptation.

      Lay low for a bit, and a month from now, quietly “defriend.”

  6. Christen said:

    I think recently bereaved folks are more likely than other people to take people completely at face value. I’m definitely guilty of interpreting some “If you ever need anything..” or “If you ever want to talk” offers as literal and sincere. In some cases they were and in some cases they were things people said because they didn’t know what else to say. For this reason I do not recommend a polite fadeout. I say decide what you can offer this guy and tell him, in the most concrete terms possible. If you feel OK checking in with him once a week, tell him, “I don’t have time to deal with e-mails every day, but I’m happy to check in via IM once a week or so.” If it’s once a month, say once a month. If it’s never, say never. Then, keep your word, as consistently as you can. I would also address the idea of meeting in person very directly. If you’re OK with the idea of getting coffee with him six months from now, or any time he just happens to be in town on business, say so. If you don’t want to see him ever, say so.

    Suggesting counseling or support groups is a fine idea, but don’t overemphasize it. This really isn’t about him and his grief and his needs. He does need to deal with those things in a healthier, more local way, and he will only do that when he is ready. This is about you and your boundaries. It sucks to discover that you are The One That Got Away when you thought you were just The One Who Would Be Fun to Get a Beer With Sometime If It Works Out, But Whatever. This guy’s being a creeper and if I were you I would probably not want to have much contact with him. But on the off chance that he’s totally decent normally — three months, six months, four years down the road, he will be totally embarrassed that he acted this way. (I think about stuff I did two or three years ago — my mom died in 2008 — and I think, What a strange, funny human took over my body for a while. A strange, funny human who is not invited back.) Either way, I think polite, concrete communications will save you both a lot of trouble and resentment and embarrassment in the long haul. Good luck.

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