When it comes to couples and immediate families, there’s usually one person who gets designated the role “Public Representative for All Correspondence with Relatives, Friends, and Whatnot”. This person is almost always a woman, by the way - a shock to no one - though there are some notable exceptions that I’ll come back to later. Anyway, this public rep is on point for wedding RSVPs and sending thank you cards, and on the whole, this arrangement works out ok in the context of an *equitable* (wink, wink) division of household responsibilities. But when it comes to expressing condolences, it’s important that all parties show up. Sympathy by proxy is a lame-ass cop out.
Not cool, Ryan.
Sympathy by proxy is when there is a death or crisis, and only one person provides support, serving as the condolence ambassador for the family. When it comes to compassion, it’s necessary for all adult members of the family to get in touch. There’s no representative for the group. Anyone who is connected to the bereaved is expected to show up.
It's easy to let one family member reach out and for the others to take a pass. We know that people don’t reach out because it's hard (really hard) to know what to say. They also stay quiet because they figure that if their family representative is closer to the person in crisis, then it makes sense for them to speak for the group. They also worry that they will be a bother - they don't want to overwhelm someone going through a hard time. However, if you know the person, you need to reach out on your own behalf and not let your family member/partner do the heavy lifting.
Your absence will be noticed. They will think, "Beverly sent a text but why didn't I hear anything from Anne? We are together every Labor Day," or "Ronny helped me shovel snow after the accident but when I saw his wife she just waved and got in her car." This is one of the aspects of supporting someone in pain that you don't think about until you are the person in pain. The bereaved are keeping score. They don't want to be - it's a total waste of mental energy - but they absolutely notice your silence and they will remember it for a really long time (likely forever).
What to do if you are guilty of sympathy by proxy
So let’s say you're at the town pool and you run into an acquaintance 5 months after a devastating event. In seeing them you realize that you let your partner be your sympathy proxy. You will likely feel terribly awkward when you realize you haven’t spoken to this person since their life-altering moment, but your partner has sent a card, brought over food, etc. It is ok to say hello/how are you today and not say something more about your absence in the moment. It is hard when you’re caught off guard to say what you mean to say, and the person might not be ready for a grand gesture in a public space. What you can do is write a note afterwards, and apologize for not connecting sooner.
I will be the first to admit that I've used sympathy by proxy many times. Within my immediate family, our family friends have suffered through the loss of children, siblings, parents or spouses and I let my mom be our representative, not even thinking that they might like to hear from me, too. My husband lost three family members in a four-month stretch in 2017, and I let him be my proxy. I think I had good reasons for doing that at the time, but even still, 6 months have passed and I haven't yet checked in. And I want to - I want them to know that I care.
Thankfully, I'm a firm believer that when it comes to compassion, later is definitely better than never.
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