DEAR AMY: Four years ago, my sister suffered a tragic loss: Her daughter committed suicide at the age of 20. We have all surrounded her with love and support.
But increasingly my sister (admittedly always rather self-absorbed) has started to use this grievous loss in a way that we simply don’t know how to handle.
She will make demands and decisions that are hurtful to family members. She displays a shocking lack of empathy toward others. If we communicate this to her, the comeback is that we don’t know what it’s like to lose a child to suicide.
We’re finding ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being held hostage by the tragedy because to comment further on her behavior makes us look brutally insensitive. It’s as though she’s saying to the world, “I lost a child to suicide, so you have to do whatever I want and feel really sorry for me while you’re doing it, forever.”
In fact, my parents — who of course lost a beloved granddaughter — chose to leave town at Christmas rather than deal with my sister’s drama. We truly love our sister. We want to help and not criticize. How should we handle this?
— Sis #2
DEAR SIS: You cannot transform your sister into a different person. You cannot diminish her neediness, grief or emotional manipulation. But you can make ongoing choices about how you will behave. If you can draw a firmer line, even at the risk of seeming “insensitive” to her, you will be behaving in a way that is more honest and truthful. Ultimately, this may “help” her, although there is a possibility that it won’t change her in the slightest.
You can say, “I’m so worried about you; I can’t seem to help you. I want you to heal.” There are a number of bereavement groups for survivors of suicide; she would benefit from attending meetings. In terms of her insensitivity toward you, you should push back. Her behavior is getting worse. You’re going to have to risk hurting her feelings by saying, “You are being unkind. You are being disrespectful. This is hurting our relationship.”
DEAR AMY: I recently took a vacation and stayed at the home of my (live-in) girlfriend’s mother. My girlfriend was not there due to her work commitments.
During my time there, her mother told me that she recently had developed a relationship with a man. Her husband of more than 40 years (my girlfriend’s dad) passed away last year.
She asked me not to tell my girlfriend, since she’d be seeing her in person the following month and didn’t want her to hear it secondhand. I obliged. I also believed my girlfriend would feel happy that her mother had found some companionship.
When my girlfriend returned from her own visit a month later, she was furious at me for not divulging her mom’s secret to her. She accused me of not being on “her team.” I was stunned at her reaction to me, but I now wonder, does she have a valid point?
DEAR STUNNED: First the good news: You can keep a confidence. However, your girlfriend does have a valid point. It is her right to know about something having to do with her own mother. Your misstep was to agree to keep this confidence in the first place. Answer a request like this by saying, “Whoa, I don’t feel comfortable keeping this a secret. Now that you’ve told me, could you also tell her — like, right now?”
DEAR AMY: I literally could not believe my eyes when you advised “Worried” that “taking on some debt for college is actually a pretty good long-term investment.”
I cannot believe you would actually tell someone to go into debt. — Disgusted
DEAR DISGUSTED: Many readers share your disgust, but I stand by my statement that managing some debt to finance a top-flight school can be worth it. No student should mortgage a future, however. I agree that some students and families are taking on a treacherous amount of debt.