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I can't help my sister's children

by Paul V. Johnson

Dear Paul:

My sister was ten and a half years older than me and died four years ago. It's as if a day has not passed for me since her death. She left three children surviving her: two boys, ages 12 and 10, and one girl 6 years old. I want to help the children talk about their feelings; all three are still suffering. But the pain is so strong for me even now that just writing about the subject has me in tears already. I cannot talk about this subject with her children, because I am afraid I will burst into hysterical tears myself. I am just not capable and feel I am a failure for not being able to help them. I feel that the least I can do, since I am still alive, is help them, but I just don't know how. I need help. Any advice you could offer would be much appreciated. Thank you.

An inquirer

Dear Inquirer:

I am sorry to read about your sister's death and learn that dealing with her death continues to be so difficult for you after four years. You will always have some difficulty dealing with her death, but it appears that you have not progressed through your grieving process in as healthy a way as might be possible.

I don't know what your response was immediately following your sister's death and in the one or two years after it, but maybe you didn't do some necessary "grief work¬" at that time. As a result, her death has continued to impact you in a very significant way. There is a phrase that goes, "Grief can be delayed but it can never be denied." I am wondering if you did some things early on through which you may have tried to avoid the grief rather than experience it, and as a result it continues with you to this day. I would encourage you, if you have not already done so, to seek out a counselor who could help you work through some of the grief issues with which you are dealing.

You mentioned your sister's children and their ages. Are those the ages they were at the time of their mother's death, or are the ages you have given their present ages? They don't need you to "be perfect" in dealing with them about their Mom's death; they simply need you. And if there are tears, that is quite okay.

So, I hope you can get some help in dealing with your own grief experience, and in so doing you will be better able to be of help to others who also are still grieving your sister's death.

Best wishes,

Paul V. Johnson, MA, is a consultant and trainer for business, industry, and educational institutions on issues related to loss and grief. He was formerly an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethel College(MN) and Director of Aftercare Services for the Bradshaw Funeral Homes in the Twin Cities area. He has made presentations at the national conferences of major professional caregiving associations and is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.