You Can’t Pick Your Relatives

Why don’t my relatives acknowledge my loss? How to break it off with a grieving girlfriend? Meg chimes in

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What do you do about family members who don’t give condolences for your loss? No cards, flowers, or even a Facebook posting? Do they not care about the person, or about you? I’ve attended the funerals of some of these people’s loved ones, sent flowers, cards, even a piece of jewelry in memoriam. Do they assume if they said sorry to one they said it to all (my brother died leaving three siblings)? I’m truly perplexed.

Ugh, these people. You’re not alone: everyone who has lost someone has a story about The Person Who Never Said Anything. The reasons for not expressing appropriate condolences are, I am sure, as many and as varied as snowflakes. Careless, ignorant, stupid, cheap, clueless, rude snowflakes. But also awkward, shy, not-knowing-what-to-say, thinking-saying-something-might-make-you-feel-worse, haven’t-(yet)-been-there, don’t-get-it snowflakes. I don’t mean to excuse the behavior, as I have flat out cut people from my life on this issue alone, only to say not everyone knows how to act.

I do think the fact that you lost a sibling is a key piece of this puzzle. There is so much research about the impact siblings have on one’s development as a person (depending on your siblings, this will either horrify you or make perfect sense. Or both). Despite this, siblings really do seem to be overlooked in their grief, particularly if the parents are still alive, or if the deceased was married or had kids. It makes sense to me that people believing they can express condolences to “a member of the family” or “one of the siblings” is sufficient (although why some people just shoot for sufficient is beyond me).

Still, what can you do? A huge bitch session with your remaining siblings can be both illuminating (Aunt X told me to tell all of you how sorry she is) and therapeutic. But as big an advocate as I am of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say come sit next to me” school of socializing, try not to indulge your worst instincts for too long.

Normally, those with the potential to hurt you the most with their lack of support are the people you are closest to. So, consider the source. If a relative you have a good relationship with has not said something, and that not saying something will cause you to have a bad relationship going forward, you owe them and yourself a chance to fix it and move forward. That’s not to say that some sort of extracted condolences will feel satisfying or genuine. But you can reach out to them and say, “this has been hard” or “I expected to hear from you” and see how they respond.

Finally, I fully expect my siblings to be around until we’re all loudly and unapologetically complaining about how girls today (the year 2052!) dress like whores. And whatever your vision of a future relationship with your sibling was, you have been deprived of it. Which is terrible. And also why it makes sense to be mad at anyone who doesn’t express appropriate condolences to you.

So, if you if you haven’t heard from some dusty uncle mainly known for being drunk on the periphery of family weddings, you have permission to fume at him silently and from afar for as long as you need to. Until you don’t anymore.

My girlfriend’s dad died from a pulmonary embolism two years ago. We were both 25. We’ve been together for three years now and I’ve wanted to end our relationship for a year. It’s not about her grief; I’m just not in love with her anymore and feel too young to be tied down to someone out of guilt. How should I break up with her? She still has a lot of tough moments about her dad and I already feel guilty for any emotional pain I’ll cause her. 

I recently heard about a woman in her nineties who is divorcing her husband. While a lot of people think ‘why bother?’ I am genuinely pretty delighted by the news. I like to imagine her flicking ashes out of a rhinestone cigarette holder in the general direction of her elderly soon-to-be-ex-husband and thinking, I may only have 4-6 more months to live, I’m not going to spend it married to this guy. My point being:  no age is an ideal one to feel like you’re stuck with someone you don’t love.

But, I consider the death side of things my wheelhouse, not the romance side.  (Also in my wheelhouse is the being broken-up with, not being the breaker-upper, but that’s for another time).

Does your girlfriend have a good support system? Are her mom, siblings, friends clued in to the fact that she is still grappling with her dad’s death? Does she talk to any kind of therapist? Has she ever talked about hurting herself? Until you’re not with her (and also since it seems you genuinely care for her), I think you have an obligation to make sure she has all the outside support she can get.

Then, consider talking to her in a manner that is as kind and as straightforward as humanly possible. You say the breakup is not about her grief, so you should absolutely refrain from saying anything about her father in the conversation. I can only imagine how extra terrible it would be to hear anything that sounds remotely like: “I am breaking up with you because you are too sad/depressed/upset about your Dad.” That would be a pretty unfair “it’s not me, it’s you” thing to lay on her, and she would surely fail to hear your other reasons.

This won’t be easy for you, and it won’t be easy for her. However, if you’ve wanted to break up with someone for 33% of the time you’ve been together (really, anything over 20% is suspect), the end of your relationship is probably inevitable. I would never advise someone to dump a significant other the week or the month or even six months after a parent dies (doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen). But two years down the line, grieving or not, you’re not doing anyone a favor by staying with her when you genuinely don’t want to.

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at (subject: Ask ML).

Please note: Questions may be edited for length or clarity. Modern Loss is not a therapeutic adviser; this category should only be used as a guide. Users should verify the verify the veracity and appropriateness of the information posted on the site with his or her own therapeutic adviser. 

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