Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: "Illinois Reader," who cares for her bedridden husband, requested that friends who run into her at the grocery store or beauty shop not ask her about her husband, but instead talk about other, lighter topics.

It's often hard for friends and acquaintances to know just what to say in situations like this. Sometimes people are hurt when friends DON'T inquire about an ailing loved one.

My suggestion to her is to give a brief, polite reply about her husband and then turn the conversation around and ask how the other person's children are doing. Mention she'd like to rent a movie, and ask if they've seen any good ones lately. Most people welcome the chance to talk about something more positive, and this lets them know that it's OK. -- OHIO READER

DEAR OHIO READER: Your suggestions can make even the briefest encounter a moment of respite for those who need it most. Thank you for sharing them. I received many compassionate letters from readers offering to share their tips for coping with the stress of caring for invalids at home. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: I was moved when I read the letter from "Illinois Reader." That letter could have been written by me.

In 1977, my husband was diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative illness. By 1986, he was wheelchair-bound. I was his sole caregiver, and in 1989 when my husband could no longer be left alone, I had to retire in order to care for him.

When I turned 50, I realized I was only existing, not living. People no longer recognized me unless I was behind my husband's wheelchair. I was angry at my life, my church and my husband's family. I finally sought the counseling my daughters had been urging me to get.

I want "Illinois" to know that help is available. Caregivers deserve a life as much as the sick person for whom they are caring. I had become a widow with a living husband. A widow receives emotional support, and that's exactly what I needed.

Today I am the manager of my husband's illness, but no longer a victim of it. He is still at home (now on feeding tubes), but I have help -- nurses and aides -- and he will remain at home. However, I, too, have to live while he is alive and not wait until he is gone -- because now is the time for the living, and now is all I have. -- ELKE MCALEXANDER, THOUSAND OAKS, CALIF.

DEAR ABBY: May I address this to the "Bride-to-Be" whose father had a "terrible-looking" mouth? (He was missing several teeth in front; some had rotted away, leaving only stubby roots, etc.)

I know this is an exciting time for you and you want your wedding to be perfect, but please be thankful that your father will be present at your wedding.

I lost my dad when I was 19. Eleven years later, I married the love of my life. How I wish my father could have been there. However, my mother participated in my wedding. Like your father, Mom had dental problems. She had had all her teeth removed and was fitted with dentures, which she never wore more than 10 minutes because they were very uncomfortable.

I asked Mom to please wear her dentures on my wedding day. She wore them for a little while, then said she couldn't stand the "darned things," so she went to the ladies room, removed the dentures and put them in her purse.

Now I realize that whether she wore her dentures or not was very unimportant. -- A PROUD BRIDE

DEAR PROUD BRIDE: Your parents obviously raised you with a healthy sense of values. I wish you every happiness.

Good advice for everyone -- teens to seniors -- is in "The Anger in All of Us and How to Deal With It." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Anger Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112; (816) 932-6600