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Carolyn Hax: Aunt shouldn’t worry about how and why of niece’s death

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

After many years of suspected psychological issues and drug use, and after burning bridges with family, my 32-year-old niece died yesterday.

I’m overcome with, I don’t know what - sorrow, guilt, relief, anger, ambivalence. I had enough stress in my life I didn’t want anything to do with her in recent years. Her mom, my sister, went in endless cycles of writing her off, eventually sending more money to her, then long, tearful phone calls to me.

The relief is this agony is over. The guilt is we all felt we had to turn away from her. The anger is her need to get high was more important than everyone who loved her. I wish this could be a reason some other kid gets off drugs, but it won’t be; they think this’ll never happen to them.

What can I do to help my sister, myself and my kids cope with this awful thing?

– Grieving

I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s awful to witness a slow-motion tragedy.

I suggest you cope with the loss by sticking to the most basic truth here – a life precious to all of you is over. The how and why are secondary. No one is obligated to make sense of a senseless death.

If you come to some way of turning her loss into motivation to help others, then that aids healing. But now, your feelings are complicated, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Feel what you feel on your time and be as present for your sister as you can. You might find “ring theory” useful ( for its simplicity: comfort in, dump out. Take care.

Dear Carolyn:

My son is 2 1/2, and my husband wants to take him on vacation with his parents to Florida. I cannot get the time off. I don’t want my son’s first plane trip to be without me - plus, I don’t feel ready for him to be that far from me. I trust my husband and in-laws, but neither has been my son’s primary caregiver. My husband rarely gets time off and really wants to take him. He always defers to me on the kids but sounded disappointed I said no. Am I being unreasonable?

– Parent

I wouldn’t call it unreasonable. Of course you want to be present for “firsts,” and it’s hard to send your baby off on a plane without you.

But I would call your decision unfair: You’re taking something valuable and material away from your husband and child just to preserve something conceptual for you. This is an opportunity for your boy to get closer to his daddy. If your husband hasn’t learned to care for his son solo, when is going to be the right time?

A “yes” would be a loving and selfless gift.

Email Carolyn at