Reaching out to someone who has suffered a tragedy
February 10, 2017 2:22 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago, I learned that a former co-worker who I very much liked had passed away from a serious illness. Now, I am facing this same illness under very similar circumstances within my own family and I'd like to reach out to his wife. Is this a bad idea?

I feel like if I were in her shoes---at the end of the road, as it were, and someone contacted me who was at the beginning---I might find it therapeutic to offer whatever help and advice I could. But that's how *I* would feel. I'm wary of coming across as insensitive and reminding this woman (whom I did not know myself) of a tragedy which may be painful for her to discuss.

What do you think?
posted by ficbot to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would encourage you to find an online support group for this illness instead. That will provide a group of people who have explictly signed up for this kind of thing.

I'm sorry you're going through this. Take care.
posted by sockermom at 2:24 PM on February 10, 2017 [20 favorites]

I think this is not a good idea if you have not been in touch with her at all. I agree that you should look for support elsewhere, either online or locally.

I am sorry you are dealing with this.
posted by FencingGal at 2:27 PM on February 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Is there anyone you share as a friend or contact that could tactfully inquire about her receptiveness to this idea?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:29 PM on February 10, 2017

My husband died of Leukemia when he was 30 and I would have loved it if someone who knew him had contacted me and said "I am open to going to some meetings (or doing a walk-a-thon) to fight Leukemia, wondered if you were interested, BTW I worked with your husband and always thought highly of him. I am so sorry for your loss. If you would like to carpool to the Leukemia Support Group meeting or join me at the walk-a-thon I would love that!"

As it was, nobody contacted me and I never did join a Leukemia Support group - I felt like I didn't belong because I wasn't currently fighting Leukemia. But if someone told me they were fighting Leukemia and would I like to join them I would have.

It probably would have been so much better for me than to go to widow support groups which were horrifying and actually one group I started (because I couldn't find any) was abruptly closed by Lutheran Services because one widow's kids were acting up in the daycare. So the rest of us were just left stranded. Very traumatic. Should have joined a Leukemia group instead but it would have been nice if someone went with me first. I was so raw at the time. Was very hard to do things on my own.

So, yes.
posted by cda at 2:42 PM on February 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear about your situation but, since there does not appear to be any sort of active personal relationship, this is a horrible idea. Grief is an unforgiving marathon, not a sprint, and while you may see her as being "at the end of the road," she could still very much be in the thick of things. Investigate other resources such as counselors, support groups, and the like. Best of luck to you and yours.
posted by katemcd at 2:43 PM on February 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Since you are not at all friends with this woman, I think this is a very bad idea.

I would look for support groups in your area and also online. And you can also ask your existing network of friends and family for support. Some of them can help you deal with this even though they don't have experience with this particular illness. And therapists and counselors are also a good resource in times of stress, so you don't overload other people--like other family members--who are also trying to process what is going on.
posted by colfax at 2:52 PM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

What do you think?

I think no one here has any idea whatsoever how this person will react. It is a complete and total gamble, which might go horrifically wrong, might be wonderful and worth squeeing about or might be pretty meh and forgettable.

So I think if you want to do this, you probably should and the part you should be wondering/asking about is how to approach it to be as not-creepy and not-weird as possible, to be as sure as possible to be kind and caring about it and respect her boundaries and be very clear that she owes you nothing and you will totally and completely drop it and never bother her again if she is at all hesitant, basically.

I have historically been a "just reach out" person. It sometimes goes super badly. It sometimes goes really well. If you can live with the burn marks should this flame out, YOLO and all that.
posted by Michele in California at 3:45 PM on February 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

This could be a little too close to dumping-in on someone who has already experienced a lot of trauma. Find support groups and people who are ready and wanting to provide you support and informed advice. Finding them along with your family could benefit all of you as you move through this.

I'm sorry that this is happening and I wish you all the luck in the world in dealing with it.
posted by quince at 3:58 PM on February 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm a bereaved parent who has written about it in public and I have had people reach out to me in weird ways, and weird moments, from nowhere. My response has always had much more to do with me and where I am than that person. So whatever you do, just remember it's not all about you.

I think my best advice is to be clear on what you want first. If you want a single conversation, like "I have three questions," then I think that's an ok ask. If you want to know the best doctor or something simple, then I think that's ok. In both cases a very brief asynchronous query (email, LinkedIn) would be ok, and then you accept the answer in a spirit of acceptance including silence.

If you're looking for "your tribe," People do form support tribes but it is so much more complex than that, and that's a big commitment. It's why there are explicit support groups, full of people who know they want to provide help.

I'm sorry this is happening to you. You do deserve help and good information. Just not from one specific person.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:01 PM on February 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

I might send something like this:

Hi Lisa,
I'm Ficbot- I used to work with John years ago at Company, and I only recently found out he had passed away. I hope it's ok that I am reaching out; I just really wanted to get in touch with you to express my condolences. John was a wonderful person and I have a special memory of him {nice story with fond details about what kind of person John was and how he made others' lives better}. I have always thought of him fondly, and now his memory is especially tender to me. I have actually been thinking of John a lot lately, as someone in my family has the same illness John had, and I'm helping raise money for research. It is a difficult and challenging situation and it makes me feel a great deal of compassion for what your experience may have been like- so, even though I don't know you well, I just wanted to reach out in a small way and share a little warmth with you, and a memory of John.
I truly wish you all the best,

If she does want to reach out to you with advice on your situation, the opportunity for her to contact you and offer advice is there in the letter-- "It is definitely a confusing time, if you ever need advice on how to navigate the treatment feel free to ask!" ...but there is no direct request that might feel like an imposition.

And if she doesn't want to reach out, she can just ignore the letter or say a simple "thank you". And because you didn't ask directly, she doesn't have to deal with the awkwardness of saying no to you. Plus you have still given her something: a kind word about her own time dealing with illness and a lovely memory of her husband she may not have known about.

I think whether she does or does not want to be further involved with you, a letter like this gives her something kind, and does not unfairly obligate her to give you anything in return. If you send this letter, be ready for no reply, and if there is no reply, that is a clear message that she does not want to delve into the topic, so don't ever follow up.
posted by spraypaint at 5:38 PM on February 10, 2017 [16 favorites]

My husband died of a somewhat uncommon type of cancer and though I may not be typical, I don't mind being the resource person for others in this disease. In some ways it offers me an opportunity to do something with all the information I gathered about it and try to help someone else. I'd probably prefer to be contacted through a mutual friend but I always prefer that so it's not specific to this case.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:50 PM on February 10, 2017

Spreypaint's letter is great.

My dad died of a rare form of leukemia. I've had an acquaintance reach out to me when her family went through a similar thing and I had no problem with that at all, in fact I really liked being able to talk to someone outside my family about my experience and be able to share that support and advice. I never get an opportunity to talk about the experience in any detail- my family want to move on and not dwell on the cancer part of my dad's life itself, and other people get uncomfortable talking about it and it's not exactly something that comes up in much detail. Although many people may not share this sentiment, I liked being able to go back to that time a little bit with someone else in a constructive context.

Even if this woman feels the exact opposite, as long as you're nice about it your polite reaching out is not by any stretch going to be the weirdest/most inappropriate way someone peripheral has reacted to her husband's death. As long as you make saying no very, very easy for her I personally see no problem with you reaching out.
posted by hotcoroner at 1:18 AM on February 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Spraypaint's got it. Everything I've ever heard is that a letter of sympathy is always appropriate, even months later, even from someone who's never the mourner, only the deceased. Asking for support would be inappropriate, but mentioning that you're going through the same thing and it made you think of her is fine. I'd use that text word for word.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:29 AM on February 11, 2017

Just my n=1 ... My father died from ALS several years ago, after almost 3 years living with me as his caretaker.

As much as I am "a pleaser" in almost all facets of my life, even after 3 years it is very difficult and painful for me to hear/talk about the disease. I will always be grateful to the people who helped us during his illness, but I am *not* in a position to be that person for other people, and I don't know if I ever will be.

Seconding the person who noted that the woman you know might not really be "at the end of the road" no matter how long it has been.
posted by mccxxiii at 1:56 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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