A reader writes: Two months ago, my 21-year-old nephew, my sister’s only child, was killed in a car accident. I was 19 when he was born. I have feelings of love for him almost as if he were my own son. I can’t find others like me. I have searched a few online forums and it seems there isn’t a specific place for me to go. Where do I fit in? I am the aunt, not the mom or dad, not the brother or sister, not the grandma. I am overwhelmed with fear that something will now happen to one of my kids or to my husband, or even that I might be taken from them. Also, I feel so guilty—something similar to “survivor’s guilt.” I wonder how my sister can stand to look at me, at my 20-year-old daughter, at my 17-year old son. I don’t know how to understand why I get to keep my wonderful family and she has to give up the son she built her life around.
As a mom and as her sister, I cannot stand that this has happened to her, but I am helpless. She and I are very different. She is strong emotionally; I am not. A few times, I have found myself in a situation where she was comforting me. I don’t know how to handle it. Yes, I am heartbroken, I am destroyed, but I know it can’t come close to how she is feeling. It seems there is nothing I can say to her—there is nothing to say.
My response: Oh my dear friend, I assure you that you do fit in right here, right now—for the same reason all the other readers of this blog fit in, because we all are bound by the common experience of loss. You fit in because you have experienced the death of someone you love dearly, and you are hurting in the deepest regions of your soul. So please know that you’ve come to the right place, and you are most welcome to be here.
You say that whatever it is you’re experiencing, it cannot come close to the loss and pain your sister is feeling, but I want to suggest to you that it is appropriate and healthy to honor your own loss of this nephew you loved so much as being worthy of grief too. The worst kind of grief is the grief you are experiencing right now.
Don’t compare your grief with anyone else’s, and know that, at this moment, your loss is the worst thing that could happen to anyone. Where there is great loss, there is great pain. Where there is deep love, there is deep grief. Accept that these are your feelings, that they are very real, and that you have a right to feel them. Respect your own reactions to this loss. Take time to look, listen, experience and understand them, and honor the sorrow that is yours.
Know, too, that feelings are not right or wrong, good or bad—they just are, and we cannot always help what we feel. There isn’t a person among us who would judge you for holding your own children close and for being grateful that they are not the ones who died. And the fact that you are grateful that this horrible accident did not happen to one of your own children does not mean that you are grateful that it did happen to your sister’s child!
We live in a death-denying culture, after all, and most of us couldn’t get through an ordinary day without deluding ourselves that we are safe, we will continue to be safe, and all our loved ones will be safe at home waiting for us at the end of our busy day. Now that this death has happened, you are no longer able to hold on to the illusion that your world is safe, dependable and predictable. Your assumptive world is forever changed, and it is frightening and overwhelming to know that you must come to terms with that.
I understand your not wanting to upset your sister by something you have done or failed to do, whether at the cemetery or anywhere else, but I seriously doubt if expressing the love you had and continue to feel for her son would be upsetting to her. Talking with your sister about this young man you both loved so much, sharing stories about him, reminiscing together and remembering him, and finding ways to keep his memory alive can be the most precious gifts you can give to each other as you both find your way through this long and difficult journey of grief. You need not suffer this alone, and in silence, separated from each other at a time when you need each other most.
I am attaching to this post a number of articles that I hope will bring you some measure of understanding, comfort and peace.
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