Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Boyfriend’s Brother Died. How Can I Be Supportive?”

About a month and a half ago, I started dating a really great guy. We have incredible chemistry and a lot in common. However, our relationship has already hit a huge hurdle: two weeks ago, his brother passed away very suddenly. Adding to that pain is the fact that his family lives across the state, almost six hours away. My boyfriend is obviously taking his brother’s passing extremely hard because they were close and my boyfriend really truly admired his brother.

While his brother was in the hospital and after he passed away, I made sure to make myself available whenever my boyfriend needed to talk, even if it was late at night, although I couldn’t be there in person because he was across the state. I also made the drive to attend his brother’s viewing so that I could be supportive, and he told me over and over again how much he appreciated that. However, since my boyfriend left his family to return to our city, he’s been having a lot of difficulty adjusting to normal life once again (understandably so). He’s not sleeping, and he’s emotionally eating all the time. He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on, and I understand. I have difficulty letting my guard down and being vulnerable, too. Plus, even though we’re dating, we’ve still only known each other for a short time, and he might not feel completely comfortable opening up to me yet.

I did ask him flat-out what I could do to be there for him, and he responded that he didn’t know. Do you have any suggestions about how to be supportive? Should I give him space to grieve, or should I make myself available to spend time with him whenever he needs it? Should I keep asking if he wants to talk or avoid the subject completely? I want to be there without smothering him. Your guidance would be appreciated. — Confused New Girlfriend


I’m really sorry to hear about your boyfriend’s brother, especially given that you didn’t have more time to create a solid foundation with your boyfriend before this happened. But it sounds like you’re doing everything right. Just being there for him and giving him space to grieve in whatever way he needs or wants to is all you can do. Unfortunately, grief is unpredictable and inconsistent. What your boyfriend needs today may not be way he needs tomorrow. The way he behaves this week may not be how he behaves next week. From day to day, his feelings are likely to change pretty dramatically, from sadness to anger and everything in between. Being aware of that and as accepting as you can is your best bet for being a supportive girlfriend.

I’d also suggest simply being honest with your boyfriend — letting him know that you want to be supportive but you aren’t sure what he needs. Let him guide you. Follow his lead. If he’s having an angry day, give him some space and time to himself. If he seems especially vulnerable, be more nurturing. If he seems like he wants to talk, listen. Ask him questions about his brother. Be interested in learning more about this person you’re going to miss out of getting to know.

Finally, be sure to manage your expectations and take care of your own emotions. As much as his brother’s death has and will continue to affect your boyfriend, it has had a sudden affect on your life too. This budding relationship that showed so much promise a few weeks ago has hit a pretty big roadblock. Your new boyfriend is no longer emotionally available to you in the way that he was, and that’s got to to suck. Don’t feel guilty if you need to grieve a little, too. This is the perfect time to turn to your friends or family members for moral support, to help you get through this time so that you can be strong to support your boyfriend.

Hopefully, your relationship will survive the challenges it faces now and be stronger for it. Last year, I answered a letter from a teenager whose boyfriend’s mother committed suicide. Like you, she wanted some guidance on how to support her boyfriend during his time of grief. Happily, she wrote back several months later and said that her boyfriend was doing OK and that they were closer than ever before, “partly because we’re kind of bound by trauma,” she wrote, “but also because he knows he can rely on me whenever he needs me.” I hope for a similar happy outcome for you and your boyfriend.

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

24 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Jess April 4, 2011, 3:10 pm

    My best friend died suddenly (accident) about 2 months after I started dating my ex-boyfriend. We were great together and I know we had a lot of potential, and he was supportive and wonderful, but our relationship didn’t make it.

    After my friends death *everything* in my life changed… not just my relationship with my boyfriend. I was miserable, and really nothing could change that. My school work suffered, my friendships suffered, and my relationship suffered. I pushed him (and everyone else) away… I don’t know why. I felt so isolated in my grief, and I just couldn’t relate to my previous life for a year or two afterward.

    My point is, everyone handles grief differently… but if he pushes you away and wants the relationship to end, don’t think it is your fault. There really is probably nothing you can do right now to *truly* comfort your boyfriend. So please don’t feel guilty if you can’t see him through this.

    The preacher at my friends funeral described grief this way: In the beginning the grief is the center of your universe, and everything else revolves around it. With time, the grief is just a planet in orbit… one of the things in your life that will *never* go away and will always be there, but not always the center of everything. Right now, the grief is the number one thing in your boyfriends life. I’m afraid that will only change with time… 🙁

    Reply Link
    • avatar

      PFG-SCR April 4, 2011, 8:21 pm

      Thank you for sharing that, Jess, and I’m sorry about your best friend. 🙁

      Reply Link
  • becboo84

    BecBoo84 April 4, 2011, 3:11 pm

    I completely second everything Wendy said. And, I also want to add that even though it may be difficult, accept the fact that he might turn to people besides you to help with the grieving. While you’ve been awesome over the past couple of months you all have been dating, he has many other people who have been a part of his (and perhaps his brother’s) life for years, and they might be better at providing the comfort he needs right now. Please send an update and let us all know how you’re doing in a few months.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    RoyalEagle0408 April 4, 2011, 3:19 pm

    One of my best friend’s from college lost her dad a few years ago, somewhat unexpectedly (he had cancer but was in remission and passed shortly after it returned). It was extremely difficult for the first 6 months or because I didn’t know how to help. Sometimes just being there and letting the person come to you is all you can do. Take things slow and be comforting, but also don’t be upset if he’s not ready to talk.

    I think it’s always harder after the initial shock if you will, wears off. At first there’s a ton of family and friends around and then after about a month or two when things kind of go back to normal for everyone else, the grieving person needs support the most. It seems like that’s what’s happening now. Maybe plan a special date or something to just show him you care, without mentioning his brother. Sometimes the little things matter the most.

    Reply Link
    • avatar

      ReginaRey April 4, 2011, 3:36 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly about the little things mattering most. Not saying anything necessarily, but just making him dinner, picking up groceries, helping with chores, etc. When you’re grieving profoundly, it’s difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. Easing someone who’s grieving of the mundane tasks they have to do, but can’t find the will to do, would be a great way to show support.

      Reply Link
  • avatar

    bek7bek April 4, 2011, 4:32 pm

    I lost my first true love of three years to a motorcycle accident back in 2003. I didn’t eat or sleep for months. I didn’t want to go out and I didn’t want to see anyone…especially my family. My best friend is the only person I could stand being around for months. I kept myself busy at home…crafts, reading, ect. Eventually, I started gradually feeling better. I got out and starting doing things, stopped feeling sorry for myself…and I was ok. Unfortunately, it took about a year for me to snap out of the funk. While I know, a BF and a sibling are totally different relationships, everyone grieves differently. The only thing I can suggest is give him space while being supportive. Don’t do like my family by pushing him to get out and do things or see a counselor (that is unless he’s completely lost it). Pushing him, will only push him away. It took me a few years to repair the damage I did to my family by shutting them out. I can’t imagine how a new relationship would fair. I hope I never have to deal with that sort of pain again…family, friends, or boyfriend. And I wish there was some concrete answer as to what to do…I wish you goodluck.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    cmarie April 4, 2011, 4:34 pm

    I agree with Wendy about following his cues. Just be supportive in whatever capacity he needs. He’ll let you know in his own way if he needs to talk or he needs to go out and pretend to be normal for a bit. It’s important to be able to read his cues because he might not be able to tell you himself what’s going on in his head but you also have to remember that you’ve only been together a short while and you might not be completely in tune with him. It’s ok to misread signals, it’s going to happen, and it’s ok to feel overwhelmed sometimes. Your expectations have to change with the shift in your relationship. If you truly want to be there for him, take care of yourself as well. After 6 months of moving in with my LDR my mother passed away, my niece suffered a traumatic brain injury, within a year my uncle had passed and a cousin I grew up with died unexpectedly and my older brother developed a bad drug addiction. My partner tried to be supportive of me and understand my grief but she had been sheltered from “negative” emotions her entire life and didn’t know how to react. She had always dealt with it by retreating. I needed her to be more supportive, to be more patient and understanding, to give more emotionally than she was able to. Unfortunately, we stayed in the relationship, kept trying to work it out, until to all fell apart and nearly took me with it. Point is, give him the support he needs but if he asks for more than you are capable of bow out as gracefully as you can. The last thing he needs is the added stress of a failing relationship. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that you can’t be what he needs, it’s just important that if you can’t to let him know before it causes more strain.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    fallonthecity April 4, 2011, 5:37 pm

    To add another perspective of how people grieve, I have never been very good at letting people support me. When I lost two of my grandparents last year (I know grandparents and brother aren’t the same, but it’s the closest thing I have to be able to relate), I could not even make myself pick up the phone and tell my best friend. I think making yourself available is probably the best thing you can do, besides just generally being kind and understanding.

    Also, for me, I needed a push to get my life back to normal. After my grandmother died, it was such a welcome thing for my friends to invite me to dinner, or to their study groups. It helped me get my mind off what I lost, and helped me get back in the swing of my life.

    Good luck, LW.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    randi April 4, 2011, 5:44 pm

    psychologically speaking, after the first few weeks of grieving and reflecting, there comes a point where a person needs to pick themselves up and focus on the fact that they still have a life to live, and people in it who miss them.
    the lw here definitely needs to be as supportive as she can, and be there for her hurting boyfriend, regardless of how long they’ve been together. everyone needs support.
    but the thing that people need more (after a while to wallow) is a return to a normal routine. it helps a person move on and realize that life does go on.
    let me make it clear that i am NOT making light of the brother’s death. but the lw needs to make sure that her boyfriend doesn’t slip into a bad pattern. anger and sadness eventually need to be pushed aside in order to move on with your own life.
    i suggest the lw keep her boyfriend busy. take him out on short, fun little outings or dates. plan things to get him out of his house. ask him gently if he’d like to tag along with you some days, to get him moving again and distract him from himself.
    he needs support, but he doesn’t need to be babied.

    Reply Link
    • avatar

      demoiselle April 4, 2011, 8:41 pm

      Your advice to the LW to help her boyfriend find alternate activities is good. Grief counseling would also be a good idea for him. But it’s not really fair to put the LW in charge of making sure her boyfriend doesn’t slip into a bad pattern. They’ve only been together for a month and a half. She can be there and do lots to be supportive (see my suggestions below), but his mental health is, ultimately, his responsibility.

      Reply Link
  • avatar

    Jennifer April 4, 2011, 7:47 pm

    Hi LW, I’m so sorry that you and your boyfriend have to deal with this. I just had one clarification I wanted to make on something that you wrote. You said:

    “He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on, and I understand. I have difficulty letting my guard down and being vulnerable, too.”

    I think it’s less about him not wanting to be vulnerable to you than the grieving process. I lost my father last year and I still have a hard time talking about it because it is so hard for me to admit that he isn’t here. I’m graduating college soon and to know that he won’t be there tears me up inside. So sometimes it’s easier to pretend that everything is ok.

    It sounds like you’re being great at a really hard time. Good luck and I commend you for being there for him.

    Reply Link
    • avatar

      jena April 5, 2011, 3:15 pm

      I feel you. My dad died about 3 weeks before college graduation and walking into the commencement ceremony knowing he wasn’t there was really difficult.

      Hang in there.

      Reply Link
  • avatar

    demoiselle April 4, 2011, 8:37 pm

    Thoughts:

    Be compassionate and willing to listen. If you haven’t lost someone close to you, don’t try to say you know how he feels. Realize that anniversaries and holidays will be tough–and they might be tough for YEARS. Don’t studiously avoid talking about his brother just because its uncomfortable–unless he asks you to. If he gets emotional or starts to cry, don’t judge him (even if you think plenty have time has passed and he should be over it by now). Stroke his back, give him a tissue, make him a cup of tea. You’ll learn what helps in time. I think the most important thing is to acknowledge the magnitude of the loss and respect it.

    Grief is strange. My father died of cancer five years ago. A week ago, one day before the 5th anniversary of his death, my husband and I happened to be watching Stargate SG1 on Hulu. The episode was the one where Captain Conner’s father is about to die of cancer–but he becomes host to an ancient snake-like alien who saves him in exchange for sharing his body for, like, 200 years. I burst out sobbing. I SO wished I’d had a go’auld symbiote for my dad and could have saved him pain and still have had him around to meet the love of my life, etc! It was utterly ridiculous, and I knew it. And my husband just hugged me and rubbed my back. It would have been easy to judge my reaction as excessive or silly, but he didn’t. And that is exactly how to help someone who is grieving.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    Hana April 4, 2011, 8:50 pm

    This is a horrible situation and I am so sorry that he is going through it! The only advice I can give is be there for him in the way he expresses he needs. Remember that each day is new and he may or may not express emotions. He could be happy for weeks and then horribly sad one day or vice versa. Please allow him to heal, don’t take actions or things he says badly because he is going through a lot. Be forgiving and let him know whatever he needs you will be there. If the relationship does not work out right now, don’t fret. He may need time to grieve alone. Just be there as much as you can.

    Good luck and I hope you guys make it and that he finds peace with this!

    Also, my father became very spiritual when my grandfather passed recently. If he already is religious perhaps you can go to some services with him or talk about your beliefs in the afterlife and if he becomes more religious let him and support him. If he is not at all religious and you are I would be careful about bringing anything up because it may upset him more.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    sarita_f April 4, 2011, 9:13 pm

    I’ll echo what a lot have said here already – there’s no right or wrong way to approach supporting your BF.

    One of my best friends in the whole wide world (she was like a sister to me) passed away very unexpectedly a little over a year ago. I’m one of those people who cannot just go up to someone, even my best friends or family, and start talking about my feelings, particularly when they’re negative or sad or complicated. You have to kind of coax it out of me. And I really only realized this tendency in the last few years. It’s a bit funny because I’m one of those people who others tend to open up to out of the blue.

    Point is, your BF will most likely not respond the way you would, and that’s ok. The only thing you can do wrong now is try to steer the ship on how his grieving goes, whatever you do DO NOT presume to know what’s best for him. Don’t worry about knocking this one out of the park, you cannot approach this perfectly. But it sounds like you care, you’re going to try, and you’re sensitive enough to step back and try to think about your response and show you care. You’ll be fine, you’re doing the right thing, and please don’t stress about it.

    Peace to you and your BF.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    Elle April 4, 2011, 9:24 pm

    I don’t have any experience about losing someone so close. I don’t know what I would do if I were you, LW. I know what kind of person I am – I internalize everything, and I don’t ask for help, until it’s too late.

    I know what I’ll say will get me a lot of purple fingers, but I’m going to say it anyway.

    LW, the man you started dating is no longer the man you are dating. For one third of the relationship, he’s been grieving. Two weeks from now, that will be half of your relationship. 6 weeks from now, 2 thirds. See where I’m going with this? You are entering a relationship with someone who is grieving. After he overcomes his grief, and you guys are still together, what if you don’t like him? After all, he becomes his usual self, which you didn’t get to meet for a long time, because he was grieving.

    Supporting him will be emotionally draining on you. It probably already is, and it will get worse before it gets better. Are you willing to give such strong emotional support to someone you just met? (Because of how your question is worded, I already know your answer is yes, but I’m just trying to put things in perspective…)

    If you stay with him and nurture him through this grievance period, that will most probably set the tone for the rest of your relationship. And what if he continues to stay with you because you helped him in a time of need, and he feels like he owes you something? Wouldn’t you like a guy to stay with you because of you, not because of what you did for him?

    I’m not saying MOA, because that would be a pretty jerkish move. I do hope you’re mentally prepared to give him the emotional support he needs (from your letter, you seem willing to). But still, try to be his girlfriend. Make him take you out on dates. Or you take him out, since he won’t want to get out of bed. Don’t be only nurturing (that’s what moms do, but this will be hard to do, because women, by nature, are nurturing), be the woman he is dating. And try not to get too emotionally invested. He can’t think straight right now, and it will take a while until he gets out of the haze.

    To sum up, while you help him through this period, make sure that your needs as a girlfriend are met as well. I know it sounds selfish, but while you look out for him, who’s looking out for you? Also you.

    Best of luck to you both, and I hope you will come out stronger on the other side.

    (Hope I make some sense. I’m pretty tired.)

    Reply Link
    • avatar

      Jess April 6, 2011, 3:29 am

      I completely agree with this. When I was in a similar situation to the LWs boyfriend, intially i *did* open up to my boyfriend and dumped a lot of emotional baggage on him. I also treated him like shit pretty much, because grief is an extremely self-centered emotion. Even though I broke up with him a few months after it happened, I still associate him with that time, with that pain.

      Seriously, i *hate* thinking about him, because it just brings back all those horrible feelings of out of control grief. Just by being there, he was completely associated with that awful time. Looking back, I feel really bad about putting him through that. but what can you do…

      Reply Link
    • avatar

      Jess April 6, 2011, 3:34 am

      I especially agree with not being able to see the “real him” when he is grieving. Chances are, you will like him less bc he is grieving than you would if he wasn’t… but still.

      If I were you, I would bail. If you’d been dating for 6 months (maybe), or really a year, than my advice would be totally different. But 2 months isn’t enough time for your relationship to be defined by anything else but this grief.

      Reply Link
  • caitie_didnt

    caitie_didn't April 4, 2011, 9:49 pm

    I can’t even begin to imagine what the LW’s boyfriend is going through right now. And it sucks that such a traumatic event happened right at the beginning of their relationship. I think big, traumatic events like this can pull relationships in two ways: they will strengthen and accelerate long-lasting relationships, or hasten the end of a relationship that wasn’t going to last anyways.

    LW, I hope that things work out for you and your boyfriend, but take care of yourself and remember that if it doesn’t work out, it’s not because of something you said/didn’t say or did/didn’t do.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    SpyGlassez April 5, 2011, 12:20 am

    First off, I know the situation is not exactly the same, but a year ago my grandmother passed away. My grandmother and I were exceptionally close; she was another mother AND a best friend rolled into one. My boyfriend and I had been dating for about 5 months then and while I had wanted him to meet her, he had been worried about meeting my family too soon. We’d had about 2 days warning (My aunt told me on Tuesday that Grandma wouldn’t last through the weekend, I drove down in the wee hours on Wednesday, she died Thursday) and because of how everything fell out, the BF came down, but had to leave before the viewing/funeral when I really wanted him there.

    It has taken me a year to not cry about her passing at least once a day. Once the initial shock wore off, the deep hurt from losing this best friend also developed a vein of anger towards my boyfriend for not coming down to meet Grandma, for not being able to be present at the funeral, etc. I realized as time went on, the anger was more at the loss of him not getting to know the most influential person in my life.

    Basically, what I am trying to say is, don’t be surprised if his grief runs a gamut of emotions and if sometimes he pushes, or if he expresses frustration, hurt and anger. The situations aren’t the same, but he will be dealing not just with the loss of this person, but with the future-loss of knowing the milestones his brother will miss. As others have said, it might bubble to the surface at unusual times, but just being there for him will work wonders. When I was saddest and hurting the most, my BF would just hold me and if I needed to talk, he would encourage me to tell him about her.

    Grief doesn’t vanish, and your boyfriend will never “get over” this loss, but eventually the day-to-day poignancy will fade and life will go on. I wish you the best, and I also wish him the best. Definitely update in the future.

    Reply Link
  • Jess

    Jess of CityGirlsWorld.com April 5, 2011, 9:57 am

    This is fantastic advice from Wendy on every point. I agree about the reminder that this can take an emotional toll on LW too. And she needs to find her own sources of support. I also agree that situations like this can make a couple stronger –if they get through them. I’m sorry you’re having to get through this but I am hopeful and optimistic for your relationship and your BF’s recovery.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    jena April 5, 2011, 3:12 pm

    When my dad died, a lot of friends tried to get me to talk/express feelings, and I absolutely could not let myself do that. I think the best thing you can do is keep conducting your life in the same way you always did, and when he’s ready, he will talk. He will definitely appreciate you respecting his wishes about not wanting to talk about it yet.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    justpeachy April 5, 2011, 3:31 pm

    Last year, my husband lost both his grandparents within a month of each other and he didn’t know how to grieve, let alone how I should support him. Sometimes support doesn’t have to be hugs and listening, it can just be doing the day to day things they can’t so they can deal on their own. Go through his kitchen, make a grocery list, and make him some meals. Collect some of his clothes, ask him if there’s anything you shouldn’t wash (you don’t want to be the bitch that washed the sweater that smelled like his brother), and do some laundry. Rent some movies. Clean up all his icky, cried-in tissues. By being there for him, he knows that you are supporting him and easing his mind of the tedious, and maybe he’ll open up to you more over a big bowl of mac and cheese on his couch watching a 007 marathon.

    Reply Link
  • avatar

    iris November 25, 2012, 11:20 am

    My boyfriend of 3 months recently lost his best friend, who was female. It broke my heart, not because I knew her, but because he means so much to me. Even though my parents don’t approve of me sleeping over his place, I made a plane to spend the weekend with him. He isn’t someone who opens up easily and needless to say, I was shut out and hurt. We had a fight the day before I left but we sorted it out. And now I’m here, feeling like I’m not handling this the right way. But how do I handle it?I want him to heal, not for our relationship but because of his recent out look on life. I am wlling to do anything to help him…I just don’t know. And the guilt of failing him as an understanding girl friend is there all the time. Today is the funeral and I didn’t go, not because I didn’t want to be there for him but because I figured his other female friends would need him to be there for them. But after reading your story I’m here thinking I made another wrong move …praying our relationship makes it

    Reply Link

Leave a Comment