As advice columnists go, Emiy Yoffe of "Dear Prudence" is usually relatively compassionate. Today, however, Prudie was shockingly cruel to a young woman* grieving the loss of her best friend:
Dear Prudence, I am in my mid-20s, and my best friend and I were very close. At the start of this year, we were in a car crash. I survived with a few broken bones. She was the driver and died on the scene. Everyone was devastated. My question relates to her material belongings. As I understand it, her grieving parents are slowly going through her possessions. Am I, as someone who spent years in a very tight friendship with this woman, entitled to go through her possessions, as well? I'm chiefly interested in gifts and trinkets that I gave her that would have sentimental value. I also lent her a book that would be nice to have returned. It would mean a lot to me if I could have some of her things (or at least have some of my things back). How do I gently broach the subject of her belongings with her family? Do I wait and risk having all the things I value thrown out? Should I just let it go, and know that I had and lost a good friend?
—I Lost Someone, Too
Dear Lost, I wish I knew what book you'd lent your late friend, because I would be happy to order a copy for you myself, rather than have you assault these grief-stricken people and tell them there's a volume on their daughter's shelf that actually belongs to you. No, you do not have standing to rummage through her things. You've lost a friend and been through a terrible trauma, so I am trying to be generous about your unseemly desire to regift to yourself the items you gave this young woman. I'm assuming you two actually exchanged presents over the years, so what you have by way of remembrance are the things she gave you. You certainly could pay a call on her parents to see how they're doing. Keep in mind the pain you might evoke—after all, you lived and their daughter died. If they offer that they'd like you to have something of hers as a memento, try to restrain the impulse to load a moving box worth of stuff. If they don't, be grateful that you survived a deadly accident, which is the ultimate gift.
One line in particular made me want to slap Prudie: "[S]o I am trying to be generous about your unseemly desire to regift to yourself the items you gave this young woman." That's so vicious. Prudie's insinuating that the letter writer is greedily scheming to get her dead friend's loot.
This poor woman just wants a few knickknacks to remind her of her departed pal. She's trying to explain that she only wants a few items that the parents will probably pack off to the Goodwill without a second thought. She's not angling for money or family heirlooms. If the parents knew she wanted this stuff, they'd probably be delighted to know that a dear friend of their daughter's would treasure this Sno-Globe or that commemorative ashtray.
Prudie claims that it would be an "assault" on the parents to ask for these trinkets, or even for the letter writer's own book back. What the hell is Prudie's problem? It's hardly an act of violence to say, "I loved Misty and it would mean the world to me to have that set of shot glasses I gave her for graduation..." If the parents really can't bear to part with them, they can say no, but it's hardly an unreasonable request.
The letter writer should offer to help the parents go through their daughter's belongings. When someone dies, the task of sorting through their stuff can seem overwhelming. Chances are, the family will be grateful for the assistance. When my dad died three years ago, so many friends pitched in to help with the grueling task of sorting through piles of books, tools, and found objects that he'd hoped to turn into lampshades. We were so grateful. Jettisoning a certain amount of stuff was practically and psychologically necessary, but it felt wrong to just throw it out or give it to strangers. It was so much easier to send mementos home with friends.
Maybe Prudie was put off by the letter writer's choice of words when she asked whether she was "entitled" to "go through" her friend's possessions. Put that way, it sounds a little presumptuous, but what she's really asking is whether it's her place to approach the parents. Clearly, it is her place. Close friends have status in our lives, even if they don't have a legal claim on our estates. The letter writer is entitled to gently ask for what she wants. Again, the parents can say no, but if they seek to respect their daughter's wishes and honor her memory, they will be gracious.
Instead of comforting the grieving woman, Prudie lays a survivor guilt trip her, implying that her very existence is hurtful to her dead friend's parents. WTF, Prudie?
*Or possibly a young man. The letter writer's gender is irrelevant here.
[Photo credit: Flickr user Mubina H. distributed under Creative Commons.]