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Carolyn Hax: Misdirected anger over memorial gifts

Sun., Aug. 5, 2012, midnight

Dear Carolyn: My wife of 40 years passed away in April of pancreatic cancer. I was able to stay home and take care of her the last two months of her life. The local hospice was very involved also, and was a great help to my daughter and me. My wife did not want a funeral, just cremation and a celebration of life later.

I informed everyone, and put in the obituary, that I did not want flowers or gifts, but rather a donation to hospice.

My wife comes from a large family, and I have family also. I heard the typical “Anything you need just let me know,” “I’ll do anything to help,” etc. Again I mentioned the donation to hospice.

Only one of my wife’s sisters made a donation – $20. NOTHING from any other family members, and none of these people is hurting financially, either. Gifts were given from my employer, my wife’s employer and friends and even my daughter’s employer. Are these people cheap or just plain heartless? I would like to approach them but do not know how. – Mad in Wisconsin

I’m very sorry for your loss.

I am also sorry you don’t have the source of solace that so many people depend on. Donations to a meaningful charity can help people feel their loved one’s suffering wasn’t for naught, and I can see why you’ve pegged your personal feelings to the hospice’s receipts.

However, I’m still going to urge you stop doing that. These well-to-do relatives are entitled to give – and grieve – as they deem appropriate. They may well give generously to other causes. No matter how much you’re counting on them to respond, a request for donations is merely a suggestion, not an obligation.

Another reason to let this go: Your anger is misdirected, no? You’re really (and understandably) angry at death? It’s a devastating opponent. It never hears your objections, it never flinches when you lash out at it, it always has the last word. So, there’s no satisfying place to put the anger you feel.

Relatives, on the other hand, who don’t want to or just forget to send a few bucks to your wife’s caregivers, are satisfying places to send anger. They can be bested if you say just the right thing at just the right time. They’d hear you. They bleed.

I wonder, though, what you hope to accomplish by challenging them. Confronting them will let them know you are hurt, yes, but it won’t undo your loss or anything that has transpired since.

If what you’re after is some show of support, then I suggest instead that you open your mind to other ways that people may have expressed their concern and affection.

And, too, don’t discount the simplicity of asking for something else. To the family members who mean most to you, say: “I’d love some company, if you have time in the next few weeks.” It’s hard to do, yes, but if anecdotes are evidence, it’s harder still for others to resist the urge to beat an awkward retreat from someone reeling from a loss. Making it easier for them by spelling out different options will likely come out better for you.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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