Ask The Salty Waitress: Can I Ask My Customer Whether Her Spouse Died?

Dear Salty, I'm in a potentially sad situation. I'm a server at a restaurant where an elderly couple comes in for lunch regularly, maybe a couple times a month. Usually they sit at one of the booths in my section.

This week, though, the wife came in alone. I don't think this has ever happened in the entire time they've come to the restaurant. My first thought was that, oh god, her husband died. But I didn't want to ask since that might be rude. Plus what if he's not dead? So I just didn't acknowledge his absence at all. Now I'm wondering what I'll say if she comes in alone again—do I just ask about her husband? And how do I do that without making assumptions?

For background, I don't know the couple super well. We make small talk but I don't know their names.

Thanks,Concerned In Florida

Dear Concerned,

Asking someone flat out "Hey, did your husband bite it or what?" probably isn't the way to go. I think you were fine to ignore it the first time around, because Mr. Jones could have been out golfing, or not feeling well, or doing any other activity that living people do.

But if you see the woman solo again, pipe up. Sometimes we get so caught up in our politeness that we forget the basic fact that we and our customers are all human beings. You've seen these people together every day for a while, so you'd have to be a total ditz not to notice that suddenly Mrs. Jones is flying solo. It's pretty normal to ask about that. Delicately.

Never thought I'd be typing these words, but: Don't outright ask if your customer has kicked the bucket. Instead, I'd phrase it like: "I noticed half of your duo hasn't been in lately. I hope he's feeling okay?"

It shows you're concerned but still polite. And if she's a really private lady, it lets her off with a "Yeah, he's fine, thank you."

And if in fact she says that Mr. Jones is deceased, then you should react the way you'd react if any person told you that: "Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. You have my sympathies." Short and sweet is best. Let her talk if she wants, or not if she doesn't want to.

Don't pry, and don't make assumptions about their relationship like "He seemed like a great man" or "This must be so hard for you." I had a mean old uncle who died, and people would tell me how sad I must be, how unfortunate the loss was, etc. Meanwhile, not too many people in my family were all that sad to see him go. (He was a first-class asshole, is what I'm saying.)

So, to wrap up: Ask, but don't assume. Let her guide the conversation. If she says her husband has passed away, express sympathy but don't go overboard. Then take the rest of her order.