Monday, October 23, 2017

In Grief: Brother's Dating Causes Family Conflict

[Reviewed and updated October 16, 2022]

Don't look at me in that tone of voice.  ~ Dorothy Parker

A reader writes: There is so much to this story that I could write a book on this but I will try to make it brief. One day last fall, my husband and I were awakened at 6 in the morning to learn that my husband's younger brother had been murdered by one of his employees. We are all in in several states away. Their father died 10 yrs ago of cancer, and besides their mother there are seven brothers and sisters in this family. This brother was the only one who lived far from home. He was 34 and for 15 years had been living with his girlfriend; together they had a son who is now 2 years old. Needless to say, the shock ,anger, denial and a range of emotions all set in, and no two family members reacted the same. For the past several months, the deceased brother's girlfriend and son have been down here for numerous visits. My husband's younger brother and this girlfriend have shocked all the family by starting a relationship, which has set off a new depression among several of the family members.
I think both of them are still grieving and this happens to be part of it, but no one else seems to be able to see that. I would really love some insight into what is going on and to know if there is any way to help ALL of them in this situation. There is no communication going on but they all talk to me about it. I am overwhelmed. HELP.

My response: I’m so very sorry to learn of the traumatic death of your brother-in-law last fall, and I can only imagine what this tragic event has done to your family.

As I understand it, your primary concern centers around the family’s negative reaction to the developing relationship between the deceased brother's bereaved girlfriend and your husband’s younger brother – a relationship which you may be more willing to recognize and accept as their way of coping with this loss.

The family’s conflicted feelings about this are understandable. When a sibling dies and one of his brothers begins dating the deceased brother’s girlfriend, it can be very hard for his mother and the remaining siblings to accept, no matter how soon after the death it occurs. Partly that is because they may be feeling a need to remain loyal to their son and brother and respectful of his memory, and they may be worried that these two people will cease to remember and love this irreplaceable person they all have lost.

You say that in this family “there is no communication going on” but they all talk to you about it, which leaves you feeling overwhelmed and at a loss as to how to “help ALL of them in this situation.”

It may be helpful for you to keep in mind that every person in this family is grieving a different loss, and the relationship each one had with the person who died is very different too. Your husband and his siblings have lost their brother, your mother-in-law has lost a son, and Jim’s girlfriend has lost her partner and the father of her child. (See How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences.)

You say that although they were not married, these two had been together for 15 years and had a two-year-old son. I don’t know how close they were to each other, or anything else about their relationship, but I do know that however this woman reacts to her partner's death depends on many, many different factors. To gain a clearer understanding of what she may be experiencing, it may help you to read what newly widowed women have to say about dating and remarriage. (See, for example, Julie Donner Andersen's article, HowLong Is Long Enough?) Once you’ve read the article, you might even share it with this girlfriend and ask if any of it rings true to her. If you think they would be open to it, you may want to share the article with other family members as well. This might open up some meaningful dialogue with all concerned.

In any event, it may be unrealistic to expect that you must be the one who can help everyone in this family deal with all of this, my friend. As you say, "there is so much to this story that I could write a book on this." What you can do, however, is encourage individuals in this family to get some help by talking to a therapist or qualified bereavement counselor who specializes in traumatic loss, so that their feelings about losing their son and brother in such a sudden and violent manner, and their current difficulties with this new relationship can be expressed, worked through and resolved. The fact that this was a death by homicide is in and of itself a complicating factor. This family may have no control over how these two choose to live their lives in the wake of this awful death, but with help they can find more effective ways to manage their own reactions, get on with their own lives and keep this family together.

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