Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.I have a dilemma. One of my friends lost a parent, which was very sad. The death was unexpected. The family didn’t have life insurance. My friend went to a crowdfunding site and created an appeal, asking for money for funeral expenses. Many thousands were raised. I visited when home from school for the holidays and was shocked to see my friend has a new car! Money is tight, so I’m suspicious the fundraising money was used to buy the car. Do I have an obligation to say something? Maybe post on the site? I think it’s wrong to misuse these funds.

– 20-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Losing a parent, especially unexpectedly, can leave a grieving person in shock. Grief is different for each of us. The added financial burden of funeral expenses could be very stressful.

Your self-described dilemma involves a complicated situation. Let’s talk about moral choices first.

Very young children do the right thing because they’re afraid of punishment. They may become rigid believers in rules. Think of playing a game with a 10-year-old. The rules count.

Over time, child development theorists believe people learn to do the right thing because it is the right thing. The adage describing character as the behavior we exhibit when no one is looking – when we cannot get caught – supports this concept.

As we mature, we often find our moral choices are more gray than black and white. It may be challenging to clearly know the right thing, particularly in an area where we may not have full information.

Your suspicion may be correct. Your friend may have used some of the money to buy a car. You aren’t privy to that information, however. Your assumption may not be accurate. You say many thousands of dollars were raised, but you don’t know how much was spent on the funeral. Many thousands are needed for burials and other funeral expenses.

I don’t feel you have an obligation to post about a possible misuse of funds. Most crowdfunding donors realize they will not control the funds once the donation is sent, nor can the money be returned. It’s impossible for you to know how those donors would feel if some of their dollars were used to support your friend. I’ve personally run two crowdfunding campaigns for former students when they lost a parent abruptly. In both cases, I can attest every dollar was spent on the funerals; I also wouldn’t mind if my personal donation went to something the grieving student needed, like a car to provide transportation.

Ultimately, your moral choices are personal. Weigh information with intent, considering carefully how much your friend’s experience is your business. If this moral challenge haunts you, I suggest you speak directly to your friend. Be cautious and respectful. Your friend needs your support, not your criticism.

Peer Educator response: We all were troubled by this question. On one hand, we hear you and get your dilemma. On the other hand, there’s so much you don’t know. What if the car belonged to the deceased parent and is now your friend’s car?

While it’s not OK to use the funds for more than funeral expenses, we can understand why your friend might do so. We don’t think your friend was trying to do the wrong thing. Maybe grief clouded your friend’s reasoning. Maybe the funeral expenses were so high, all the thousands raised on the site were used. It costs a lot to take care of a loved one’s funeral. We think donated funds should be used on the funeral first, but afterward, the money could be used for something the family needs.

We concluded we would not post anything on the site. We weren’t definite about speaking to your friend but would think long and hard before doing it. Grief is tough enough.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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