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Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I am a 45-year-old man. In my early 20s I had a wife and son who were killed in a car accident. My second wife and I have now been married for 15 years and we do not want children.

Many of my wife’s relatives don’t know my past, and a lot of my current friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. don’t either. How do I deal with comments about my child-free status? Some are positive, like, “You’re lucky not to have kids so you can travel when you want.” Other times they’re more negative, as when I recently told someone I hadn’t been sleeping well and she replied, “You don’t have kids. You have no idea what sleep deprivation really is.” I’m never sure how to respond.

I’m happy with my life now, but I certainly don’t consider myself “lucky” my son died, and I actually do know what it’s like to care for a baby who cries all night. Should I just inform everyone I know about my past? It would be such an awkward conversation to have with every single person I come in contact with, but I can’t think of any other way to ensure people will stop. Those comments are painful.

— “Lucky”

Oh my goodness, I am so sorry.

Your wife is best positioned to spread the word discreetly among her relatives that your history is not as it appears. Presumably you had your reasons for not sharing this information more widely 15 years ago, but it’s not unusual for your reasoning to change as your life changes.

Your wife can, in this process, ask these relatives to be mindful that seemingly harmless assumptions about your not having children are in fact acutely painful for you.

You can also choose to say something on a case-by-case basis to people who make these comments: “I actually do know what it’s like”; or, “No, ‘lucky’ isn’t the word I’d choose.” Each is enough to tell an alert person to back off this line of reasoning with you — and someone slower on the uptake will have a chance to ask a follow-up, which you can then answer or not, as you wish.

Hello Carolyn:

Our family recently lost my youngest brother in a traumatic way. My mother had five adult children; all of us are in the midst of our own difficult financial times. We had a small ceremony to remember my brother, which was completely funded by the grace of others, although the location restricted the attendance of many of his friends and extended family. We would like to host a second memorial near them. However, our funds are running low. Is it inappropriate to host the gathering as a potluck?

— Anonymous

I think acts of love err on the side of appropriateness, so sharing your love and grief with the people who loved your brother would carry a presumption of generosity.

I suggest you approach the friends or family members you know best to discuss your idea before you announce it widely. Not only will this help you gauge how a potluck will be received, but it also might yield volunteers to help you host it.

My condolences.

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