Dear Amy:

A little more than a year ago, my 12-year-old niece (my husband's brother's daughter) died suddenly and unexpectedly of a cardiac arrest while at summer camp. We were all shocked and devastated. Within a week the funeral was scheduled. I had a contractual business obligation (as the sole presenter and facilitator) for an exclusive three-day retreat, which unfortunately coincided with the funeral. I couldn't get out of it.

Through tear-filled eyes I wrote my brother and sister-in-law a two-page letter expressing my grief and sorrow for them and at not being able to be with them physically. I phoned my parents and asked them to attend the funeral in my stead. My husband and two children went to the funeral, as did my heart. My husband said it was a lovely service attended by hundreds.

Over a year has passed and my brother and sister-in-law refuse to acknowledge my existence or have any contact with me. My husband has minimal contact with his brother, an occasional, shallow phone conversation where this "situation" is not mentioned.

I have never stopped reaching out to them with cards, calls and gifts, for all important dates, birthdays and holidays. They do not acknowledge me or my children or any of our attempts to communicate with them. Now this couple has a new baby on the way, and I am heartbroken at this tragic cutoff and its implications for our greater family. What more can I do to heal this tragic rift?

Tragedy on Tragedy

You don't say how the family is reacting to others during this terrible time; this "refusal to acknowledge" your existence may extend to others in their lives too. This sort of contact may simply be too difficult or painful for them. They may have lost their moorings; they probably cannot comprehend your sensitivities. Most likely, this has nothing to do with you. After a year, they may just be starting the process of grieving for their lost child. Don't judge them. Don't push them, be consistently loving but not annoying, and don't take anything personally.

Your husband should call his brother and ask if the four of you can get together. If they agree to it, then pay them a visit -- without your kids.

Remember their dear girl and offer your continued support to this family. For information and inspiration, read "How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say: The Right Words for Difficult Times," by Robbie Miller Kaplan (2004, Prentice Hall Press). A chapter on the loss of a child will be of special interest to you. When I read your letter to Kaplan, she said, "The very best you can do is to do what's in your heart."

Dear Amy:

I am in a wonderful relationship with a dream guy. We have an "unofficial" (by standard terms, though to us, it's "real") boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. We've never exchanged any "let's be official" words, and when someone asks, I don't know what to say!

To everyone, including ourselves, we're boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea by answering either way if I'm asked if we're "official."

What's worse is when people ask "how many months?" because that stems from the "official" thing, and I just don't know how to answer it.

Do you have any advice as to how I can answer these questions without embarrassing myself?

An (Un)Official Relationship

If you don't want to embarrass yourself, then don't say anything you've said above.

I don't know what world you live in, but you seem to have many inquisitive friends who need very specific definitions about a relationship that you shouldn't need to define. I'm forced to conclude that you are the one who needs definition.

You and your guy get to write the relationship dictionary and define your union any way you choose. So ask him: "Are we 'hanging out,' 'going out,' 'exclusive' or what?"

Maybe he'll say, "Let's tell people we're penguins."

Write to Amy Dickinson at askamy@tribune.com or Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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