Dear Miss Manners: My younger sister and I have always been close. During our young-adult years, I took care of her, helping her clean up after the many reckless decisions she made. This included a large amount of time with her children staying at my home. They call me their “extra mom” now that they are adults. I love my sister, and she eventually turned her life around, becoming reliable, if still very emotional.
Three years ago, one of her children died of an accidental drug overdose. This was devastating for everyone in my family — but for me, it was like one of my own children had died. Here was the worst moment of my sister’s life, and I couldn’t help her because I was also consumed by grief. I didn’t have any room left for hers.
She became angry at me for “stealing her grief away by making her child’s death something that belonged to me and not her.”
We have since resolved a great deal of the problem, but since her child’s death, she says she is “enlightened.” She says that there is nothing worse than burying your child, and I agree. However, she also incessantly tells me — along with other relatives and friends, and even the letter carrier — how they should be feeling.
If you say, “I had such a terrible day,” she will respond, “Is it worse than burying your child? No. So don’t let it bother you.” If you say, “I love the beach and can’t wait to go back,” she says, “(Child) loved the beach; make sure you think of them while you are there.” My brother is having marriage problems, and she told him, “You’re being selfish and only thinking about what makes YOU happy. Get over it. It’s not important.”
How to manage this? I don’t want to restart the argument or break our careful peace treaty, but OMG — how do you tell someone, “I get that your child is gone, and I don’t want to minimize it, but right now I want to be mad that there’s a hole in my roof and I have to spend $2,000 to fix it.” Or, “Just because your child is dead doesn’t mean you get to decide how everyone else feels!” But, like, nice. Not aggressive.
Grief competition is an unseemly and fruitless enterprise. Miss Manners supposes that its so-called winners take comfort in their singular despair — but what a miserable and lonely prize that is.
Unfortunately, your sister, having considered herself the victim of it during your feud, now seems determined never to be bested again.
Miss Manners suggests that you disguise your reprimand as an apology. But it must be done with finesse and extreme humility: “Do you remember how awful it was to feel like I was stealing your grief? How terribly I acted by thinking that I was the only one consumed with pain?
“Well, I know that there is little comparison to what you have endured, but when other people are upset, you're invalidating their feelings when you tell them that yours are worse. I would think that you of all people should understand how terrible that feels and not want to inflict it upon anyone else.”
With luck, this will help your sister understand, through experience, the result of her behavior — and not cause her to add this conversation to her list of troubles.
New Miss Manners columns are posted Monday through Saturday on washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her website, missmanners.com. You can also follow her @RealMissManners.
©2022, by Judith Martin