real life

'My sister died. Now I don't know how to be around her two kids.'

One of the fun parts of losing someone is that the grief process is always full of surprises – said no one, ever.

The unexpected twists and turns that are thrust upon you when people you love die are like invisible daggers to your heart. You don’t know what they will be. You don’t see them coming. And you’re always unprepared for them.

For example – I’m currently wondering how to relate to my young nephew, after my sister died last year.

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It’s not just Aunty business as usual. There will be nothing about our lives that will be business as usual, again.

Oh, how I long to be the cool aunt I was. The fun aunt. The inappropriately permissive aunt that drove my sister nuts. Carefree and mildly irresponsible... we’re all too changed for that, now.

So many good memories. I took it for granted there would be many more made. 

Instead, what I agonise about is the role I must play in the future.

My nephew is school-aged, and technically old enough to understand what death is. But can he, really? 

I know what I’m thinking in my own grief – shock, confusion, guilt, regret, longing. Is he feeling some of those things? All of them?

No, I can’t just ask him. It feels too soon. I don’t want in any way to make things worse. Bring up trauma. 

Because I can already see it in his face, behind his smile. He is devastated and heartbroken in the most genuine sense of those words. 

My sister was his glue, his home, his heart.  

I have a little sense of that, because she was that for me, too.


If I miss her in a way that tears are always ready to fall at any moment, life without her must be agony for him. And recovery will be a long time coming. 

So, I can’t just ask, "how are you going without mum," as I would an adult. I need to let him come to me when he wants to. 

If he wants to. 

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It’s that time in the future I’m planning for. When he has questions about what happened. When he wants to know more about her childhood, her life before him.

That means to me I need to say her name, now. 

I need to show my sister’s child that I’m strong enough to do that around them, comfortable enough to handle their questions.

It’s also so very important to me that I’m available to my nephew, without any pressure at all. That needs to be made clear.

But more than anything, I have to honour my sister. Would she want us to never speak her name to her child? Absolutely not.

Here’s what I know my sister would do for my child if I died – pay for his future, ensure his safety, and joke about me incessantly. 

So I take my responsibility towards her boy seriously, all the while knowing it’s the finest of balances.

Do I call when it’s her wedding anniversary? Or is that just a horrible reminder for him?

All I know is this – I never want my sister’s son to think I have forgotten her, or him. 

But it’s not about me, is it? 

I can't pretend I’m a replacement. I can't force myself into the situation. I can see he is struggling, I can imagine his pain, but I can never fix things.

I don’t have my sister’s presence, or scent, or her significance to him, and I know those are the only things that would.

All I can do is love him in my own way, knowing it can never be enough, but it will just have to do.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

Feature Image: Getty.