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:
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.