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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My brother and his girlfriend, "Serena," moved in with my parents three years ago. They have since had a child who is almost 2. My brother did some things he shouldn't have, and now he's in prison. (He has eight months left to serve.) Serena doesn't work and barely takes care of their son. My parents seem to always have the little boy.

Last night, I dropped by the house unexpectedly. Mom was in bed, but I found my dad and Serena making out on the couch. I was furious. I could have killed her right there for doing that to my mom and my brother. Somehow I managed to keep my cool, but not before letting my presence be known.

Dad tried to act like what I saw was a game and wasn't real. I know what I saw, and I feel terrible. I don't know how to handle this. Should I tell my brother and my mom? I can never go back into that house ever again. As long as Serena is there, I am a time bomb waiting to explode. I'm afraid of what I might do to her. Please help me! -- "TICKING" SISTER IN N. CAROLINA

DEAR "TICKING": I'll try. The first thing you must do is recognize that, as tempting as it is to blame this all on Serena, your father is an adult and responsible for his actions. He is as guilty as Serena is, and attacking her is not the solution.

Because having Serena living under the same roof has proved too tempting for your father to resist, give him two weeks to move her and the baby out, or you will tell your mother what you saw. (I wouldn't be surprised if she already has an inkling.) If Serena goes, say nothing. To tell your brother that the mother of his child has been cheating on him with his father while he's incarcerated, and unable to do anything about it, would be to no one's benefit, so I strongly advise against it.

DEAR ABBY: When I have to express my sympathy to someone, such as an acquaintance at work over the death of a loved one, I haven't a clue as to what to say. I don't want to bore them with platitudes; they sound meaningless. I want it to be something heartfelt.

In the very near future, I will be losing a friend to cancer. I don't know what to say when my friend talks about dying. I want to be there for the family, and not be tongue-tied about expressing my feelings. Everything I think to say sounds stupid in my mind, so I keep my mouth shut. -- TONGUE-TIED IN TEXAS

DEAR TONGUE-TIED: Your discomfort isn't unusual, but please understand: What may seem "stupid" to you will not seem that way to the friend who is dying, nor to the family that is grieving. My advice is to keep your message brief and simple. To the family who is in mourning, say, "Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss." If they want to talk about it further, they'll let you know. If they don't, they will simply thank you for your condolences.

It is often difficult to converse with someone who is dying because of "survivor guilt," or a fear that we will become too emotional. Believe me, a person with a terminal illness is still the same person you have always loved. Listen to what he or she has to say, because the person may just need to talk. If you are wondering what to tell your friend, tell her what knowing her has meant to you, share what lessons she has taught you, describe those qualities that make her special. And it's all right to say that your life will not be the same without her when she is gone. It's not hokey; it's the truth. And one more thing. It's OK to cry. Tears can be healing.

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