My Brother Died and I Don’t Know How to Deal With the Grief

A grieving dad takes it out on his kid and looks for direction in his sorrow.

a picture of a man stroking his beard beside the words "ask the godfather"

Dear Goodfather,

I’m in a helluva bind. My brother died from a brain aneurysm at the age of 45 and it has crushed me. We were close and I don’t even know how to start to grapple with it. My kids feel the same way. He was a man we all looked up to, someone who was successful and kind and who went out of his way to bring my three boys in as one of his own (he never had kids because he always said mine were more than enough for him).

The other day my oldest (who is 5) started pestering me and saying “Where is Uncle Jack? Why can’t we see him now?” I lost it. I told them he was dead and we’d never see him again. I broke down and walked away. My wife took it from there. And now, no one is talking to me. Everyone is walking on eggshells. I don’t want to be alone in this but I don’t know what to do or where to turn.

Grieving in Georgia

My condolences on your loss. The death of a family member is always hard — harder when that family member is so close and so deeply loved. Losing a brother can feel like a part of you has gone missing and, to be sure, can be as debilitating and as deeply difficult to recover from. So, what I want you to hear because I worry you may not understand this: your grief is real and valid and important. Even more, seeing you grieve is important for your kids.

I’m going to stop just short of suggesting that your grief can be a learning experience. Because fuck that. The last thing you need right now is pressure to give your kids some kind of pedagogical roadmap for overcoming the adversity of sorrow. Your pain is not a tool to be used to help your kids develop grit. It is personal; it needs to be acknowledged, and you need to grieve in the way you grieve.

The trouble you’re in is related to the fact that, by necessity, you have to grieve in front of your kids. That can get messy, particularly when kids are young. I’m sure, intellectually, you know your kid wasn’t trying to hurt you with his questions, but they hurt regardless and your reason was overcome by emotion.

It’s important to know your kids are grieving too. And kid grief doesn’t look like grownup grief because they have fewer ways to express themselves. So that might manifest in pestering questions or meltdowns or extra-clinginess or perhaps even withdrawal. Either way, it’s hard to deal with their grief when you’re dealing with your own.

Here’s the thing, though. These are human experiences. It’s not the last time any of you will grieve and it’s not the last time things may get emotionally tumultuous in your family. The important part is how you show that you still love and support each other when hard times come.

Based on your email, I can see that maybe the expression of that support isn’t flowing as freely as one might hope. That’s a shame. So we’ve got to work on clearing the blockages.

Since communication appears to have shut down, I’m afraid it’s going to be on you to reach out. But you should do so strategically by talking with your spouse. She might have shut down because she’s worried you don’t want to talk. You need to show her otherwise.

This doesn’t have to be a hard conversation. You just have to be real with her about your pain and your need for support. If you ask for help, you’ll likely receive it. And if, for any reason, she seems reluctant to do that for you, let her know that you need to show your kids that people support each other in hard times, too. It’s not just for you, it’s for the good of your family.

After you’ve got communication working with your partner, it’s time for you to sit down with your kids. You might have sprung the concept of death on them a bit too early. They might be a bit freaked out. They might even be frightened of you. So you’re going to have to remind them that you love them. Speak to them in the simplest terms — you are sad and you are angry that you can’t see your brother anymore. They know those words and they’ve lived those emotions. But also, you need to stress that even though you are sad and angry, you are also grateful for them and you still love them.

It may help to find a space where you can just be with your family for a moment. Maybe go on an outing to a favorite place or take a hike just to get some bonding and good feeling and start reaffirming the strength of your bonds together. I’m not suggesting that you “put on a happy face.” Kids are pretty great bullshit detectors. I’m simply suggesting you take a moment to appreciate one another in this tough time.

And moving forward, try to find space before you blow up. Grief takes a long time. But if you are conscious of where you are at emotionally, you can stop yourself before you take your feelings out on someone you love. Remember there is nothing so important going on that you can step away for some calming breaths.

I wish you the best as you grapple with the new world you find yourself in. And I know that if you bring your family closer you’ll get through it just fine. I think your brother would have appreciated that effort. He said your family was enough, and you know what? They are.