#1052: “I’m meeting my boyfriend’s family this Thanksgiving. They’re all grieving the recent death of his mom. How do I be a good guest?”

Dear Captain,

I’ve (27F) have been dating my boyfriend (33M) for about 6 months and things are wonderful. We’ve talked seriously about a future together and he’s a great partner. He has invited me to spend Thanksgiving week with his dad, brother, and sister-in-law on the West Coast. *However*, his mom passed away suddenly earlier this year (before we met) and this will be their first big family holiday without her. I’m worried about my BF. I’ve noticed him drinking more than usual this past week and just seeming a little down.

I’ve heard that sometimes the weeks leading up to a big holiday or anniversary after someone dies can be even worse than the day itself, but I’m not sure how to talk about this with him without pushing him. He’s very stoic and doesn’t like to talk about himself or his feelings in general, and although he’s mentioned offhand Thanksgiving is probably going to be hard/different, he doesn’t seem to want to open up beyond that. My heart is breaking for him and I want to help him however I can, but it’s almost like he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s grieving at all.

Spending five whole days with his family (whom I haven’t met before) is pressure enough, and on top of that I’m not sure how to be understanding of what they’re going through without intruding, if that makes sense. We have some activities planned but I’m not sure how/if I should give them space when I’m there, or how to be supportive during an emotionally-charged time. Would you be able to give me a script for asking my BF about how he’s dealing with his grief leading up to this holiday? Do you have any tips for being a good houseguest and partner during an emotionally-charged holiday?

Thanks for your help,

Worried GF

Dear Worried Girlfriend:

Are you planning to be mean, rude, inconsiderate, or excessively demanding over the course of this Thanksgiving visit (“Why is everyone so sad when you should be entertaining meeeeeeeeeee!!!!!“)

No? I’m thinking no. You are a nice, kind, considerate person, you love your boyfriend, you’re aware that there is some heavy stuff going on with the family. Therefore, it’s unlikely there is anything you could do to mess up or do this visit wrong.

To be a good guest, think a little bit about how to take care of yourself:

-Bring books, etc. with you so that you can be relatively self-entertaining. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself if you need it – a morning walk, a nap, going to bed early, etc. Make time to call or text with your friends and family. That way you’ve got your support system in place. If your boyfriend wants to hang with just his dad and sister you can say “Go, I’ll be fine, I’ve got my book!/I’m gonna call my folks/go for a run/take a bath” and give them space to just be with each other sometimes.

-Adjust as much as you can to the routines of the household, but definitely speak up when you need something. “Is there an extra blanket around?” “Oh no, I forgot my toothbrush. Can we stop by the store and pick one up?” You suffering in silence over small things because THE ENORMITY OF GRIEF helps no one, and the family would not thank you for it if they knew.

-If people ask you what you want to do/eat/see today, it’s okay to have an opinion. Saying “Anything’s great!” “I’m fine with absolutely anything” seems easygoing on the surface, but then the other person has to work to come up with the plan. As much as you want to be a good guest, it’s most likely that these folks want to be good hosts to you and are worried about ruining your holiday with their giant and unavoidable bummer. So if you read a little bit about what there is to do/see/eat in the area and say “I’ve always wanted to see ____” or “I heard there is a great sandwich place around here, does that sound good? you’re not being demanding! Let them show off their town to you.

Roll with changes and be easy to please. Planned outings might not come together exactly as planned – it’s okay! The turkey or whatever might come out all wrong because mom’s not there to make it like usual, so y’all order pizza, and then the restaurant fucks up the toppings, and the dog pees on the floor and some of it gets on your shoe, and you get your period unexpectedly and it bleeds through your pants onto some fancy upholstery chair, you massively clog the toilet, you knock over his mom’s heirloom fragile tea set and it smashes into million shards and then his dad steps on the shards and has to go to the emergency room (+ 100 other unlikely worst-case scenarios our anxious brains can create, collect them all!) If you keep your sense of humor and people treat each other with love and kindness, the absurd shit that happens can be spun into the gold of funny & memorable stories later.

–Give your boyfriend and everyone else permission to talk about their mom if they want to. Listen, ask questions – “What was her favorite holiday? How’d your parents get together?” – and don’t make them feel like they have to hide their sadness and not talk about her to be good hosts to you.

-That said, give everyone permission to NOT talk about it. This week is probably not for any Big Talks About Feelings or Where Is This Relationship Going or Please Don’t Shut Me Out Right Now. If your boyfriend has a general, overall, ongoing trend toward drinking too much and shutting you out of what he’s feeling, you probably do need to talk about that at some point down the road. This week? Even the most loving, supportive, gentle version of “But how can I HELP you I wish you would just TALK to meeeeeee and let me HELP you!!!!” might feel more like pressure than support.

Here’s a little interviewer and/or teacher trick for you, if you need a more concrete technique to feel more in control of this:  Asking a question like “How’s your day going?” or making a simple statement (“I’m glad you invited me along“/ “Those photos of your mom in the living room are so beautiful“) and then being quiet and letting him say (or not say) whatever is a great tool for drawing people out. If you can ask a question and then be patient and comfortable with silence, it gives the other person space to organize their thoughts and feel like they’ll be heard if and when they choose to speak.

Above all, assume that your boyfriend wants you along on this trip, assume that his family is psyched to meet you, assume that you being your kind and wonderful self is enough for the situation. There’s nothing here that you can fix or make easier for him, no hurt you can take away, no Supportive Girlfriend Character from a movie or a song you can play who is better than you, just as you are, right now, hanging out on the sofa and watching dumb movies in comfy socks or whatever you end up doing over the next few days. You are great. The trip itself might turn out be an ordeal for so many reasons out of your control but when it’s over you’ll still be great. Super great.

No comments on the blog this week, but the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com are known to host a discussion or two.