Dear Prudence

Emily Yoffe writes an advice column over at  Slate called Dear Prudence. Rob reads it with fair regularity and occasionally shares the dilemmas she is called upon to “solve” with me. I haven’t been much for advice columns since the long ago days of reading Ann Landers in my hometown paper. I guess I have come to a point where I don’t believe that rigid etiquette will save the world as much as people simply learning to mind their own business at least twice as often as they mind someone else’s and remembering to listen more than they comment, which is an odd sentiment coming from me – a blogger with an attitude and an opinion.

Yoffe’s advice is usually well-grounded in sense and not too heavily coated with some of the rigid Miss Manners’ stuff, but a recent reply to a fellow non-plussed by a female acquaintance of his wife raised my hackles enough to inspire me to email her.

The gentleman reported that a friend of his wife’s had sent her a series of text messages to let her know about the funeral she was planning for her husband. The funeral was set for a week later and the gentleman and his wife were a bit disconcerted to discover that the husband in question was technically dead yet. He’d been ill for a long time and was in a coma, not expected to live much longer. The man wanted to know if the widow-to-be was wrong to jump the planning gun by informing others in advance of the death.

Yoffe’s reply was by the book. Yes, the not quite widow was wrong. Her husband might not die on schedule after all. But she went all stand-up comic in her approach,

Not even Sarah Palin has had the audacity to imagine the advent of scheduling people’s funerals before they actually die in order to get the old and sick to move along.

And added,

It is rather chilling that the wife is texting everyone with the news. (Did she write, “Hubby OOH; funeral Sat”?) I suppose you can be grateful that as a further convenience, she’s not sending around advance information about her wedding gift registry in case she finds a candidate for remarriage.

Following up with this condescending comment,

…refrain from pointing out to the widow-to-be that her behavior is appalling. She’ll be an actual widow soon enough, so all of you should just act as if her grief has gotten the best of her.

It’s hard to say at what point I was most offended but by the end, I knew I had to write her. And this is what I said,

Dear Ms. Yoffe,

I read your Sept. 3 Dear Prudence reply to the gentlemen who was appalled by a friend’s setting up funeral details for her dying husband in advance. As someone who did this herself, I was offended by the fact that you not only didn’t stop to consider that their might have been (probably were) details about the situation that the letter writer wasn’t privy to, but that you felt it necessary to take a swipe at the widow to be by making a cutesy crack about wedding gift registries.

I realize that your advice column is more about clever entertainment than actual advice, but I wonder that someone who is married to a widower herself wouldn’t stop and consider the impact of her words on people who’ve been in the situation that poor widow in waiting found herself.

I won’t bore you with the details of my late husband’s death. If I am to believe you, I apparently missed the meeting on exactly what a good future widow is supposed to be doing in those last hours when there is nothing left to do. The handbook hospice gave me didn’t cover funeral planning or how to project a Jackie Kennedy aura. I will say that on a more personal level I was more offended by your implying that grief is the ultimate pass card and that the ignorant gentlemen should simply join you up on your moral high horse for a more sympathetic view of a situation neither of you know anything about.

Even though that widow will never know you used her to sharpen your wit on for the entertainment – though not the edification of others – you still owe her an apology.

Not surprisingly I got a reply in which she defended her advice on the grounds of anecdotes of situations where people outlived their expected date of expiration, resulting in messed up funeral plans. Not surprisingly, however, she didn’t address the remarriage crack.

“She’s an idiot,” I told Rob after relaying her reply.

“Really?” he said. “After giving her the thumbs up as someone who understood after that piece she wrote about her husband’s late wife?”

And therein lies the problem. The dying thing is complex. There are so many sides to death, and as many people to take them, that sometimes a person is faced with themselves across the debate table with their own conflicting view points hurtling back at them  – because perspective does matter. I am widowed. I am remarried. I am remarried to a widower.  And there are times when none of these experiences line up neatly or at all.

I understand her advice in its context. Everyone wants to believe that reports of death are greatly exaggerated, that doctors are wrong more than they are right, and that terminally patients routinely defy odds. It makes us feel better.  Safer. Death is scary after all despite it being the one thing that we all will do someday.

I still think her wisecracks were cold and calculated for their effect. She is a writer and I can do that too.  They were definitely at the expense of that poor widow who hopefully has no idea what judgmental friends she has. The truth is more people spend a loved one’s last days and hours engaged in similar activities than not, but we keep it to ourselves to avoid this type of censure instead of sharing our turmoil and anguish in the hopes of lessening the burden through distribution. I know. But I’ll let it go now because it is kinder to leave people to their delusions about death and what really goes on until they have to live it themselves.

One thought on “Dear Prudence

  1. What the hell is wrong with having the funeral before he is actually dead, anyway, should that occur? Shouldn’t he be allowed to be there, enjoy it (or not)? Why can’t we honour more people before their deaths anyway, when it might do some good (for the soon-to-be-deceased)?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.