#1210: “My sister offers annual grief support that I don’t want.”

Content note: Letter mentions the long-ago death of a child.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Almost 14 years ago, my second child was born and died the next day. We received a very serious medical diagnosis mid-way through the pregnancy, so his death was not entirely unexpected. When he died, there was already a lot of drama going on between me and my parents because they behaved in some extremely selfish and hurtful ways toward me, and our relationship to this day is incredibly strained (for many reasons that could be a whole other letter). My sister is not selfish, but she has historically shared my parents tendency to not openly express emotions or have emotionally deep conversations. When my child died, neither my parent nor my sister ever asked me how I was doing emotionally or had any conversations about my child in the intervening years. Maybe they just are not equipped to talk about grief or emotions of any sort?

However. Most years, on this child’s birthday, my sister will send me an email or text saying something like, “Thinking of you and child today.” If I followed up with any sort of comment or question in an attempt to open up a conversation about my loss, she would not engage. I know from past experience it is like talking to a wall. No response whatsoever. So, I carry a bit of resentment that someone who has never asked me if I’m sad or depressed or doing great any other day of the year for 14 years goes out of their way to bring it up on his birthday. For the most part, I am at peace with the loss of this child and go on about my life spending most of my mental and emotional energy on my three living children, my job, friends, hobbies, etc. I actually didn’t even think about it being his birthday last year until I was interrupted AT WORK with her text popping up on my phone and bringing up some less than great feelings while I was trying to finish a project.

I would honestly prefer she just never bring it up since there is never any follow up emotional support or conversation. Is there a polite, socially acceptable way to say, “I know you mean well, but stop reminding me of my dead kid’s birthday”?

Thanks for any help,
Please stop “supporting” me

Hello Please Stop Supporting Me,

I hope I’m reaching you in time to pre-empt this year’s ritual Text of Dread.

Your question is a perfect rendition of why the “treat others as you would want to be treated” rule feels obvious but isn’t universal. Your sister is doing what she thinks is the right thing to do. Maybe it’s what she thinks she would want in your shoes, or maybe she read a piece somewhere from a parent who lost a newborn lamenting the way everyone always forgets (which is an entirely valid point of view). She’s trying, in her way, but that doesn’t mean it has to be your way. Boundaries aren’t just “Stop!” and “Don’t” or reserved for jerks or extreme cases, they can also be how we teach people who love us how to be good to us.

It’s also an encapsulation about the most recent discussion about boundaries and preferences. We can discuss examples and proffer case studies, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if 100 strangers say “But I would want my son’s death acknowledged, your sister is trying her best (plus nobody ever acknowledges x loss in my life and that really hurts)” and 100 strangers say “Oh no, it’s too much, especially given the overall relationship, tell her to stop, that wouldn’t work for me at all!” We can find solidarity and affirmation and information in each other’s stories, we can find alternate takes, reminders of the things we haven’t thought of, these are things that make this community so wonderful, but at the end of the day: You need this to stop, even if it were on some level a kind thing or the right thing to do, even if your sister is doing her best and means well. Since you need it to stop, it has to stop.

Unfortunately it means opening the can of FeelingsWorms this year (in the hopes that it will be the last time). There’s no way to silently radiate this request at your sister, you’re going to have to engage her, so here’s a possible message you could send that would acknowledge the intended kindness and stop the behavior:

“Dear Sister, [baby’s] birthday is coming up, and I need to ask you a favor this year and going forward. It’s so kind of you to always send me a quick note to acknowledge the loss, so few people ever know what to say about something like that, but I’d like to put that tradition to bed from now on.

You had no way of knowing, but as time goes on, ‘forgetting’ that day feels like the right thing to do. I try to focus on [living children], I try to focus on things that make me happy, I even enjoy diving into boring work tasks sometimes, and do my best to remind myself that life goes on, that happiness is possible. Of course I won’t ever forget [baby] but the more time passes, the more it helps to be private in that grief, to let it come when it comes and not seek it out when it stays away.

If you want to celebrate or remember [baby’s] life and death on [day], please, instead of checking in with me, do something very nice for yourself and the children in your community. Put your favorite book into some lucky kid’s hands, feed a child who needs a meal, send a little joy into the life of a child who can’t be with their parents, support the place that helps teenagers figure out important stuff (and would be helping Aunt-You and Mom-Me have soooooo many Awkward Teenager Talks right about now 😉 ) or one that helps them when they’re in trouble, take a walk outside, look at the sky, smell a flower, be alive. No need to tell me how you celebrated, my hope is that from now on you’ll do something that feels good to you in [baby’s] honor and let the day pass for me however it passes. Thank you, Sister, I know you mean only love, let’s catch up very soon.”

Obviously, adapt in any fashion that works for you. While you experience her notes as intrusive and perfunctory, you won’t lose anything by treating her as if they are coming from a place of deep love and care. I included multiple charity suggestions because sometimes it’s good to channel people who don’t know what to do but want to do something good, this way you aren’t rejecting her offering of love, you’re redirecting it in a positive direction. If your family is bad at talking about feelings they might be pretty great at carrying out actions, think of it as a concrete ritual that can take the place of the text you dread on a day you are doing a pretty wonderful job of living through, all things considered. Sending much love and peace to you and your family.

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