Book gift recommendations for a professor who lost a child?
August 19, 2009 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Book gift recommendations for a professor who lost a child? I don't even know if I should get such a gift--but one of my professors lost his child recently (April 2009) to juvenile ALS, after watching her wither away for a year. She became sick in the Fall of 2007, and I was in his class when he told us, nearly breaking down, that our grades would be late because he had to fly back and forth to specialists for his daughter.

He's returning to teach next week after having taken the last year and a half off. I want to express my belated condolences somehow. He is a wonderful teacher and such a good man. I imagine I will write a note. Would that be appropriate? I was also thinking a book gift, but the only book I can think of is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which I am almost _certain_ he has received. I mean, I would imagine that he has this book. Can you recommend any other book or gift? Or should I refrain from expressing any sentiment or giving any gift, rather than remind him of of the sadness?
posted by dhn to Human Relations (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm trying to think about how I might respond to this as an undergrad and how I might want to be responded to when I'm a professor.

I think the fact that your professor has told the class about this and been specific about it signals that he would not be averse to a low level of reaching out from his students, but keep it low-key. Perhaps a quiet e-mail such as 'I'm sorry for your loss, and we missed you lots and are glad to see you back in class' would be appropriate.
posted by kldickson at 5:13 PM on August 19, 2009

A kind word in a card or note would certainly not be inappropriate. Tell him what you just told us. You won't be reminding him of his loss, he will be thinking about it every day anyhow.
I don't see a gift as being necessary, though a donation to an appropriate research/support organization in memory of his child might be a nice gesture.
posted by antiquated at 5:18 PM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

A handwritten note of condolence is never inappropriate.
posted by Dolley at 5:24 PM on August 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

In addition to expressing your condolences, make sure to welcome him back to teaching and remind him of the positive impact he's had on you and others in that class.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:25 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to say a note would be great. I think a gift might come across a bit weird.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 5:28 PM on August 19, 2009

Note yes. Gift no.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:29 PM on August 19, 2009

Note and donation to ALS charity. No gift.
posted by canine epigram at 5:47 PM on August 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

You could ask the department admin assistant, he or she is likely to know your professor well. In the past, in my department, our admin assistant (who is awesome) has handled condolences as well as donations to charity in the name of people.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:53 PM on August 19, 2009

Since his daughter's death was in April, a "big" gift like a book may be weird in this case, but I guess it depends on what kind of relationship you have with this professor. If you're just another student in class, then no gift, but if it's someone you've taken multiple classes with (for instance) and have a closer relationship with, a small gift of some sort might be OK -- I'm thinking some sort of food, like a pound of nice coffee or something along those lines (like between $10-15 and something he could share). But don't necessarily tie it to the death of his daughter -- just that you've been thinking about him.

But a card with a handwritten note would be just fine, too.
posted by darksong at 5:56 PM on August 19, 2009

As someone who lost a child....

Since he made this public knowledge, it would be appropriate for you to express your condolences.. Do it privately, do not send a "gift", this isn't a celebration, and be prepared for a response that ranges from grateful thanks to no response at all, and be willing to accept anything on that continuum without judgement...

When my son died, I discussed this with an aunt that had lost her husband... She stated that the hardest thing was when people crossed the street to avoid having to talk to her, they were too uncomfortable with the possibilities of a conversation with a new "widow"...

yep, don't turn your back, be available, subtle, and accepting...
posted by HuronBob at 6:15 PM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

While gifts of food are awesome during the initial mourning period, I think any sort of condolence gift at this point would be downright weird. I think if I were getting back into teaching, moving on with my life, the worst thing that could happen is some undergrad flouncing up to me and giving me Tuesdays with Morrie or The Year of Magical Thinking. I think there's some chance that I'd fucking break down right there in front of her. And I'd certainly resent somebody bringing up such a painful topic, even if they had good intentions.

Now, on the other hand, if you wanted to get him a welcome back gift, with a message to the effect of: "we're all very glad that you're back with us. Your absence was felt every day." That would be pretty cool. You could get him a bottle of wine or some very fine coffee (and I mean very fine, not just Starbuck's) or fine chocolate or something. Something consumable.

But the key is not to mention the condolences, no matter how much you feel you should. Mention that you're glad he's back. Don't poke at old wounds.
posted by Netzapper at 6:20 PM on August 19, 2009

I disagree with Netzapper and think that kldickson nails it in the first response. Count me in for a vote of note OK, no gift, donation OK if possible.
posted by Sublimity at 6:44 PM on August 19, 2009

Don't don't don't get a book.

People grieve in different ways, and people are often touchy about unsolicited advice. You may fluke getting the most helpful/insightful work ever from his POV, or you might accidentally get him something he finds to be cloying, offensive trash.

Write him a note or a card, or stop by his office and say hello in person.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:03 PM on August 19, 2009

PS: your generous impulses are commendable; just channel them into safer course on this one.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:04 PM on August 19, 2009

Suggestions to avoid mentioning the reason your professor has been grieving/taken 1.5 years off is, in my opinion, bad advice. I have experienced excruciating loss in the last year, and one of the best things people can do is acknowledge that they remember the loss(es). See (most of) the above advice for how to acknowledge this, as well as using what you know about the professor.
posted by deadcrow at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2009

Don't do what Netzapper says and avoid offering condolences. After my mom died, the weirdest encounters I had with people who knew me, knew my mom had died, but hadn't seen or talked to me since the her death were the ones where they didn't mention it. It doesn't (and shouldn't, unless you're quite close) have to be elaborate; a simple "I'm so sorry," is fine, as is a note.

I saw a friend from college recently; we hadn't seen each other since 198mumble. But I'd heard that her husband was killed (in a hit-and-run) a couple of years ago, and after a few minutes of us grabbing each other and going "Oh my god!", when there was a sort of pause in the enthusiastic greeting, I said, "I heard about [name], and I'm so, so sorry. It's awful. I'm so sorry."

It's far, far weirder to not mention it. So, nthing a note, and don't send a gift.
posted by rtha at 7:37 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

When my brother died, an acquaintance gave me a copy of David Eggers,' A Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius. The whole exchange was awkward, and I was such a mess I didn't handle it well. But the book helped me a great deal, and I often find myself thinking of the person who gave it to me with a great deal of gratitude (though I regretfully never expressed it properly). It was important to me, and his reaching out to me in that way was important to me; there's nothing quite so solitary as grief. Some, of course, prefer to grieve without notice. But I'm inclined to think giving the book is not terribly risky, and that it is reasonable to think it will be beneficial. (Just don't have any expectations about how it will be publicly received.) If you do decide to go with the book, I also recommend Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.
posted by kdk at 7:46 PM on August 19, 2009

I said something to a grieving person once about wanting to share my condolences but feeling awkward about bringing it up, not wanting to remind her. She told me to think of her as being in the ocean and to think of my concern as trying to shield her from a puddle: "I'm already soaked. You can't make it worse."

I'd vote no on a gift--particularly a book, and even more particularly a book on death or grief. Not because it'll stir up his grief, but because a book on death or grief from someone he doesn't know well could come across as un-asked-for advice ("Here is how you should mourn"). But definitely send a note if you feel inclined.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:04 PM on August 19, 2009

Nthing don't get a book. A friend gave me a book after my brother died. Nice gesture but the tone of the book was completely wrong for where I was in my grief. Here I was in pain, and the book was was full of sweet pictures of how my brother wasn't gone far, he was still in my heart. It just made me want to swear and/or violently destroy the book. However, being brought to respect books, I just donated it to the library. Moral of the story - don't do anything which suggests that you know how he is feeling or what would be comforting.

Since you didn't know his daughter and didn't know him as a parent, I would go with a welcome back message per Netzapper although I might include an "I'm sorry for your loss".
posted by metahawk at 8:18 PM on August 19, 2009

I disagree with most people here and I think it's not only touching that you are thinking about buying a book but I think that if he is anything like me he is probably starving for an understanding of what happened and can't get enough of hearing about or reading about people who have had the same experience. (I lost my husband and afterward read absolutely everything I could find on the subject)

I can recommend a book I read in grade school when a classmate died. It really helped me and I think it is really rare for a book to touch me like that. The book is Angel Unaware by Dale Evans. It is a book written about their daughter who died when she was 2 1/2.

I do agree that it would be a little awkward to give it to him. But if you write a note saying that you felt compelled to do something to ease his pain and you had heard that other parents had found comfort in this book - I think he would be grateful for the sentiment.

I really wish that someone had been so thoughtful when my husband died.
posted by cda at 10:31 PM on August 19, 2009

Thanks so much for the advice, everyone. You are all so wise. I think I will go with a discreetly given note of condolence and welcoming back, and not do the gift.
posted by dhn at 11:17 PM on August 19, 2009

When I think of giving a gift I just picture one of those Simpson's episodes where to help someone deal with a problem they give them a pamphlet.

"So you're going to die..."

or rather

"So you lost your daughter..."

Yeah, no gift.
posted by Groovytimes at 12:25 PM on August 20, 2009

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