The problem: I was recently at a gathering where I was introduced to an elderly gentleman. In our brief chat, he mentioned that his wife had passed away three years ago. I automatically responded that I was sorry for his loss and he graciously accepted my condolences. But should I have said anything? Is that kind of response warranted whenever someone mentions the death of someone close?
The high road: I think what you’re asking is, “Was it too late to extend sympathy for a three-year-old loss?” Truth is, there is no statute of limitations on grieving, although those who have endured it sure wish there were. I describe the grief process like a jack-in-the-box: You just never know when the pain will suddenly pop up, surprising and jolting, sometimes in the strangest places and oftentimes years after the death.
In a situation such as this, you can certainly change the subject quickly, or roll over the mention of the deceased as if you didn’t hear it. But this gentleman clearly was giving you a sign that what he needed was to speak about her. While you did take the high road by expressing your sympathy, I’d encourage you to ask about her. How long were they married? Where did they meet? What did they like to do?
The sad truth about grief is that everyone stops asking about the loss after about a year or two and things can get quite lonely. Encouraging him to speak of his wife would be a gift that allows him to keep her memory alive.
Gail Rosenblum is a features columnist. Send questions about life’s little quandaries to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @grosenblum