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Carolyn Hax: Devoting energy to a grieving sister


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My brother-in-law passed away three months ago. This has been a very difficult time for my sister, and I have tried to be there any way I can. My nieces and nephews are still small children who need rides to school, constant supervision and have countless activities. My sister’s job is rather unforgiving, so I am trying hard to help her look for a new job. There are also a lot of administrative duties (Social Security, estates, etc.) that my sister needs help with.

All of this is in addition to my responsibilities to my own family and my part-time job. My husband and kids have been great about helping out around our house, but lately they have indicated that they miss me. I feel torn, like everywhere that I am, I am not giving enough.

Any suggestions for dealing with this? At what point (and how do I phrase it) do I start to pull out of my sister’s life?

Also, I’ve gained 10 pounds. But I don’t think you can help me with that.


Actually, I kinda can. These are horrible and extraordinary circumstances, and the needs they are creating are acute. They won’t always be that way; both you and your sister, and even your nieces and nephews, will adapt to their new normal, probably sooner than anyone can envision right now.

In the meantime — as they go through this difficult transition — you will have less of you available to your family, to your job, to your willpower, to whatever else constitutes your normal. And that’s okay — your family is in a much better position to miss you for a while than your sister is to go without your help.

Again, a new normal is already on its way, and things like the administrative duties will all be finished eventually, and your sister will find a way to get her kids to school that doesn’t involve you, and she’ll find child care that doesn’t involve you, and all that. It’s just stuff that takes time under the best of circumstances, and when someone’s grieving, it’s going to feel insurmountable.

As much of a bummer as it is for your husband and kids to see less of you and to take on more housework, it’s life, and they can handle it. Tell them you miss them, too, and you’re so proud of and grateful for the extras your kids are doing to pitch in. Tell them their aunt needs you now and, therefore, you need them. Explain that even though this time of need is temporary, it’s still a timeless example of why family is so important.

In doing this, you can build them up and wedge in a lesson while you’re at it, and remind yourself that the best childhood isn’t necessarily a perfect one (whatever that is). You’ll be back soon, and stronger kids will greet you there.

You can worry about the extra 10-spot then, so don’t give it another thought till you’re ready.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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