Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Aunt Needs Help Dealing With Loss

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mom, woman, adult, babysitter, jeans, upset, distress, children, daughter, son, boy, girl, siblings, sister, brother, orange, bare feet, exposed brick, couch, gray, yellow, windowDear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I am 21 years old and in desperate need of advice. I live with my parents. My dead brother’s widow and her two brats, a 4-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, live in the same town.

The brats are beyond spoiled from all sides because their father died. To be fair, I am the youngest child in my family and spoiled, so I could be the problem, as literally everybody tells me.

The 4-year-old gets to me the most. She knows that my mum (her “Granny”) will give in to her every whim so she uses it fully. For example, once when she and her brother were playing outside, I was sent to call them in. I very nicely asked them to put away their toys and to pick up their snack litter and put it into the dustbin. She refused. She looked me in the eye and said, “I do not want to.”

She then said, being a 4-year-old brat, that if I carried on telling her to pack her toys she will tell her Granny that I am shouting at her and Granny will hit me. She knows this because it has happened before where I get punished for not cleaning up after them or for simply asking them to say please when they want something.

I am an assistant preschool teacher, and maybe that’s the problem. I am used to teaching children to say please and to pick up after themselves, and I naturally make the same request at home.

I would love playing with her if she would listen to me, but that’s probably too controlling of me, as maybe I am controlling in nature.

My main problem is how do I stop telling her what to do which in turn causes great friction between my parents and me; this has been going on since she was born.

I love my parents, and I am learning to accept that their grandchildren will always come first, but this niece keeps getting worse. I cannot handle it when she constantly bullies her older brother, and everyone tells him to take it quietly simply because she is younger. He always gets in trouble for shouting at her. This is probably also just one of those things of being the older, less-cute, more responsible sibling.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

You state the reason for contacting me for advice in this way: “My main problem is how do I stop telling her [my 4-year-old niece] what to do which in turn causes great friction between my parents and me … ” I want to suggest that a different circumstance in your life perhaps requires your immediate attention — that is, the ways in which the death of your brother is affecting or has affected you.

Let me explain by stating the obvious: there is no one right way to deal with loss. Everyone deals with it in his or her own way. However, some ways of dealing with a death are more helpful and healthy. In your situation it would appear that you are coping with various family members by walling yourself off emotionally — that is, you have depersonalized people, e.g., “my dead brother,” “my dead brother’s widow,” and, of most concern, your consistent reference to your niece and nephew as “brats.”

These impersonal references may indicate not only aloofness on your part but also anger and resentment, all of which are legitimate and understandable feelings; you feel what you feel.

However, deep-seated and consistent feelings of anger and resentment, resulting in emotional withdrawal, can become problematic when someone becomes “stuck on them” — that is, the negativity and detachment persist and do not evolve over time into more positive feelings and coping mechanisms. In other words, if aloofness, anger, and resentment dominate your ways of interacting with others and how you process your experiences, they can take a heavy toll on you, both physically and psychologically.

Sources and Resources

There is one way to find out if there is any merit to my suggestion that you are emotionally stuck in a place that may be limiting your personal growth and your overall quality of life. I urge you to talk with someone who can help you sort out your feelings towards your various family members, especially towards your niece and nephew.

You work in a preschool, so perhaps you already have access to counselors and therapists who can help you directly, or perhaps they can recommend someone you can talk with.

Another option for you is to go online and search for appropriate resources to help you. The Compassionate Friends is a national organization of 600 chapters in all 50 states that makes it easy to find local resources by inserting your state and area code. You may also find The National Alliance for Grieving Children a good resource to help you better understand what your niece and nephew might be going through; they also provide a state-by-state locator for support programs.

Although there is much research and literature addressing loss and grief for parents and children, the area of sibling loss is not as well researched. As a sibling, you may find these three articles helpful: “Grieving The Death Of a Sibling,” “Siblings and Grief – Ten Things Everyone Should Know,” and “Silent Grief – The Overlooked Impact of Losing a Sibling.”

In closing, I want to emphasize my suggestion that you work with a professional to help you make sure you are able to address and move beyond any emotional barriers that may be limiting you from enjoying full and satisfying relationships with your parents, your sister-in-law, and your niece and nephew. I urge you to think of this exploration with a professional as a gift to yourself.

I extend to you and all your family members my heartfelt sympathy for your loss.


Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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