DEAR MISS MANNERS: The wife of our neighbor committed suicide in their place two days ago. With many police, detectives, and the medical examiner all over our sidewalks for most of the evening and night, it was an unavoidable major event.
He was visibly distraught and obviously uncomfortable around the neighbors that night, and has gone away for a few days.
What can we say to him when he returns? To say nothing to him would feel like shunning him and would be cruel, yet almost anything we could say might be painful. I might add she was young and, we thought, happy; this was not an end-of-life choice for medical reasons.
GENTLE READER: You don't know that. With your lack of success in diagnosing the lady's emotional state, Miss Manners is surprised that you are now making medical pronouncements.
But you do not need to know the motivation of this lady's suicide to offer condolences to her husband. You are neither the doctors nor the coroners in this case, but merely the neighbors. And the job of neighbors is only to say how sorry they are about his loss and to offer any practical assistance they can.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Our son and his then fiancee announced via Web site post that they have decided to change their last name to a new name when they married. This caught many family members by surprise (as well as many wedding guests who had not necessarily read their Web site and then were confused when the new couple were announced as Mr. & Mrs. New Name).
It has been about a year since then, and although they use the new name in correspondence, e-mail and Web sites, they apparently have taken no steps to change their names legally, so at this point, I suppose, the new name has the status of an alias. Drivers' licenses, social security cards, checking accounts, etc., are all still in their legal names.
To what extent is the family obligated to use the new name? When we send them e-mail, cards and letters, on checks as gifts, when we introduce them to friends, when we send out intra-family address list updates?
Hard feelings were created when the new name was sprung on the family and was not immediately acclaimed to be the best idea since shoelaces. We are trying to smooth over the rough spot in the relationship, but are unsure how to proceed.
GENTLE READER: How much are you willing to annoy your son and daughter-in-law? Miss Manners assures you that refusing to use the name you know they have chosen will do a good job of that.
The invented surname is one of several solutions people have sought to the problem of representing both families when a new one is created. None of them has solved the problem, but we no longer have a standardized system of nomenclature.
It therefore behooves people to respect the individual choices that are made when these are known. Miss Manners also expects the choosers to be tolerant about when honest mistakes are made by those not in a position to know, but that excuse is of no use to you. You can either use the names they announced or you can take the consequences of becoming a constant irritant to them.