Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I’m Falling In Love with My Dead Sister’s Boyfriend”

My younger sister passed away recently in another state across the country with no family there and her boyfriend (of 5 months) at the time was with her when she passed. “Mack” performed CPR and called 911 and her autopsy report came back that she had taken opiates and had drunk alcohol (aka, accidental overdose). My other siblings are blaming Mack even though he says he had no knowledge of her use of opiates, which I believe.

I had never met Mack before — never spoke to him until the evening after my sister died. We have talked every day since. We make it a habit to call or message “good mornings” and “good nights,” and making sure we both are ok. He’s on my mind constantly — I worry about him. Is this attachment and love that has grown wrong? I felt drawn to him from the beginning, and I think he feels the same way. We both have admitted to having touched each other’s hearts and missing each other when we go a few hours without talking. My family would disown me if they knew, so I’m feeling so torn.

What do I do? I don’t want to disrespect my sister, but I feel almost led by her as I didn’t even know Mack’s name and I found him on her Facebook. Please help me understand. — Heartbroken and In love

First, I’m very sorry about the tragic loss of your sister, and I hope, in addition to talking to Mack, you are seeking support and a listening ear in other people, like your friends and family. Grief is a beast, especially in the early days following a loss. It makes time constrict and stretch in strange ways, and it can strengthen bonds with people you previously didn’t know well (or at all) and threaten relationships with people you hold dear. In general, I think if you’ve found someone who helps you cope with all the feelings you’re having, hold onto that person. Where it gets tricky though is when and if that person pulls you away from feelings that are normal to have, making you suppress them so you can trick yourself into feeling “better” when, in fact, you’ve only delayed the inevitable crush of grief. We saw an example of that in a letter from last week when a recent widow began dating immediately after the death of his wife of almost 30 years.

This is a time to be really honest with yourself: Are your feelings for Mack tied to any relief he might give you from your grief? Have you transferred feelings of love and concern you might have had for your sister who is now gone to Mack? Does he make you feel closer to your sister, acting as a surrogate for her in your life? If you are unable to separate your growing feelings for Mack from your grief over your sister — and, frankly, it would be very surprising if you can — that makes it so much harder to trust the feelings you have for Mack as romantic in nature.

Regardless, be realistic: You live on opposite sides of the country; even if your feelings were free from the murkiness of grief (which they aren’t), how is a relationship between you two going to actually grow? Even removing emotional baggage from the equation (which you can’t), how does this work, logistically? Now throw in the very real emotional baggage you have – the grief you both are swimming in as well as the family complications you’ll face — and the likelihood of a relationship between you actually progressing to something sustainable and healthy and long-lasting is very low. At best, there are a lot of complications you’d have to overcome – and at a time when grief itself is demanding so much of your attention.

That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in continuing a friendship with Mack if it gives you a sense of comfort. But while you can’t stop feelings from growing, you can certainly stop yourself from pursuing them, from closing your heart to other possibilities, to telling yourself your sister has led you to this person. She hasn’t led you to him. She overdosed on opiates, tragically died way too young, and happened to have a boyfriend at the time of her death who is now grieving and finding comfort in your concern. This isn’t fate; this is tragedy. This isn’t love; this is co-dependence on a difficult path you’ve both suddenly and unexpectedly found yourselves on. If you’re fooled by the difference, please consider putting the brakes on this friendship — at least until the murkiness of early grief has cleared a bit and you can see this person for who and what he is: a stranger on the other side of the country bound to you by the thread of a shared and tragic loss. The loss will forever mark both your lives, but that connection in and of itself is not enough to merge your lives.

I’m a long time reader and enjoyer of your site, and first time letter writer.

I’m a 25-year-old woman and I started a new job about six weeks ago. Soon after, while waiting for the elevator, I met a person,”John,” who works in a different department on my floor. He started there a few weeks before I did and was a bit bored at the time because the project they had hired him for had not really taken off yet. We sat together for lunch. We learned we liked a few of the same movies and tv shows. After that day, John would ask me to eat lunch together almost every day. Some days I would say yes and some no depending on how much work I had. One day after lunch he asked if I wanted to see a movie that we had both mentioned we had not seen yet. I told him I had a family commitment and couldn’t go, but to tell me how it was (not a lie, I really did have a commitment). A week later he asked if I wanted to see a movie he had gotten free tickets to see (he had won a contest) and again I had a prior commitment. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving he asked for my number and texted me Happy Thanksgiving on Thursday. On Friday, John asked what I was doing and said he was bored, and I told him I was out to dinner with family. He has stopped asking me most of the time to get lunch since I started saying no more often.

I’m going to be honest: I have zero experience in dating, flirting, etc. At first I chalked up John’s eagerness to talk to me to his self-admitted boredom. However, I have an instinct telling me that he is looking for more than friendship from me. He is about 31-years-old, so if that is the case he may be more experienced and wondering why I’m not picking up on it. He has been very nice and respectful and has not said anything overtly flirtatious like commenting on my appearance. So my first question is can you confirm my suspicion that he is looking for something more? My second question is less specific and more difficult. How do you know you want to go out with someone? I know this sounds stupid, but I’ve never been in this situation before. I think John is nice and we like a lot of similar things and can carry conversations, but I don’t feel any sort of pull.

I remember having a friend in college about whom it took me a little while to realize I had more-than-friends feelings for. I remember feeling excited to see him, and generally enjoyed being around him even when we weren’t doing anything. I never felt like he returned my feelings, and he had a girlfriend so I kept my feelings to myself. I don’t feel that way about this guy, although I haven’t known him for long. It seems so strange to me because on paper it seems like we should be good together, so why don’t I feel eager? Does it take a while to develop feelings for someone, or am I wasting everyone’s time if I know I don’t currently have them? It’s not that I feel unattracted to him, I just feel…neutral.

In your experience, can attraction be built over time? How much attraction should I look for? Am I being too picky? Also, I probably would be more eager to talk to John if I thought he just wanted to be friends. A lot of my friends have left the area and I don’t have many people to hang out with. However, I was scared of “leading him on” if he is indeed looking for something more. He also lives far from me and I don’t feel like driving that much. So thirdly, what would you do in my specific situation? — To date or not to date

 
First of all: Yes, John is likely interested in you for more than just friendship. That’s not to say he wouldn’t be satisfied with a friendship only, but his probable interest in more than friendship, combined with his working with you and his living far enough away to make hanging out inconvenient, makes this a friendship not really worth pursuing. You’ve given him enough “no’s” at this point that he will probably take a hint – even if you didn’t consciously mean to send a hint – and back off. It sounds like he already has. If you want to completely avoid giving any mixed signals or any suggestion that you might be interested in him (thereby, “leading him on”), continue saying no to his invitations. It shouldn’t take long before he stops asking completely and becomes simply another face at work. If you truly enjoy his company enough to risk a mixed signal, you could experiment with saying “yes” to lunch invitations, like, once every four or five times he asks and that would probably do the trick, but based on what you’ve said here, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.

As for your more general question about whether attraction can be built over time: absolutely, yes, it can. There are so many ways for attraction to grow, and I think a slow burn is really more common than an intense and immediate longing for someone. But the slow burn has to start with a kindling – a small spark. Maybe that spark is a mutual appreciation of each other’s company, a growing friendship, a shared sense of humor, a trust that builds over time. Often, it’s just something in your gut propelling you to another person and maybe you can’t even explain exactly why or what it is. Maybe “on paper” someone seems kind of perfect for you and, yet, you remain “neutral” and that’s because the spark isn’t really there. And sometimes that is harder to explain than when it is.

Attraction is more about chemistry than anything else. If the chemistry or spark is there, attraction can build. An actual relationship though relies on a lot of stuff working – like timing, logistics, emotional and physical availability, and, of course, attraction. And when the relationship doesn’t work, you can point to any one of those things as the reason why. But when the attraction and chemistry aren’t there, the reason is much less concrete. Or, hell — maybe it’s the most concrete thing of all: you just don’t feel it. Instead, you feel “neutral.” Feeling neutral after more than a few one-on-one lunch dates together is a pretty solid give-away that chemistry is non-existent and that the spark you need to build even the slowest burn isn’t there.

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

7 comments… add one
  • avatar

    cdobbs December 11, 2019, 10:48 am

    LW2….i think its possible to become attracted to someone over time….its happened to me before where i was friends with a guy i had no romantic feelings for at all….then one day i saw him bringing bowls of water and cold towels outside to some stray dogs and it sparked something in me…..but i don’t think attraction is something that should ever be forced….if you aren’t feeling anything towards your coworker then i wouldn’t worry too much about it….if he does ask you out on a date you could simply explain that you would like to (or not) but just as friends….but who knows maybe after you hang out with him outside of work and really get to know him something might spark for you

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  • Miel

    Miel December 11, 2019, 1:05 pm

    LW2: Have you ever thought you could be demisexual? This means you don’t really experience sexual attraction to people unless you have already built a strong emotional connection with them. The reason I’m bringing it up is because you don’t seem to have experienced a lot of attraction toward other people in your life except that friend that you mention (with whom you had an emotional connection before any “more-than-friends” feelings came up.)

    A lot of people can walk down the street and point out people they think are attractive or not. They don’t need to know anything else about them except looking at them for 2 seconds. Same thing on apps like Tinder. People can decide in a few seconds “yes, looks hot”, or “no, not my type.” I’m not saying this is the recipe to finding your future spouse, but it is one way people decide who they would go on a date with. Do you feel like you could do that, or it this attitude really strange to you and not something you would ever do?

    If my hypothesis is correct, you might need to spend more time with John and start by building a friendship before you see if you start feeling any type of attraction for him. Now, as Wendy said, maybe you really don’t want to be friend with him to begin with, but maybe you think he’s kind enough, funny enough, interesting enough to be a friend. You could start there and see where it goes.

    Now, I also hate flirting and I really hate the whole game of “hinting” and “will they/won’t they.” I prefer a very straightforward and unambiguous approach. In your situation, I would say to John: “Hey, I’m kinda unsure about something right now. I know you suggested a few times we go to see a movie together, and we’ve had lunch many times at work, and I wanted to say I like having lunch with you, and I would also really like to do activities like going to see a movie with you, however, in the past I’ve hesitated suggesting we do those activities because I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t sound like I’m asking you on a date or giving you mixed signals or something. I’m just not really looking to date right now, but I would still like to get to know you better and do things with you from time to time. Is that ok with you? Sorry if this is awkward, I just really didn’t want things to be weird and ambiguous between us.”

    And yes, that’s the type of conversations I’ve had with guys before because flirting is just not a language my brain understands. =\

    Good luck!

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  • avatar

    brise December 11, 2019, 4:40 pm

    LW1: I find the situation very unhealthy. You might think, uncounsciouly, that this man holds the key of your late sister’s end. And you hold desperately on this link as a last grip on her disappaerance. But look: it is very probable that your family is right. Usually, when overdoses happen in a couple, the boyfriend knows and takes drugs himself. The reality might be much more sordid than what you dream and he might act out of guilt. Or he maybe he says the truth but this is not love anyway. You can’t be in love with someone you don’t know, through your sister’s memory. This contact prevents you from mourning really your loss and from getting support and solidarity in your grief from your family. Let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt. He is himself dealing with a trauma. The best for you both is to let go of this daily contact: this is you both cheating death and delaying the grief. Please go to a therapist and process your emotions. He doesn’t hold the key of your future. He is part of your sister’s death, that you will have to process as a whole sad reality, and move forwards. I think you should refocus on your sister and unload all your emotions within the safe frame of a therapy. Meanwhile, do seek help and support towards your friends and family. Put that contact on pause.

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  • avatar

    Angie December 11, 2019, 7:59 pm

    LW2, always a bad idea to date a coworker, even if “different department”. Just be aware.

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    • avatar

      Allornone December 12, 2019, 8:01 am

      Agreed. And I say this as someone who met my boyfriend at work. When it started getting serious, I amped up looking for a new job (I wanted to get out anyway) and thankfully, got one (a way better one!). The potential for drama and a bad fall out effecting your professional relationship is often just not worth the risk.

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  • avatar

    anonymousse December 11, 2019, 8:16 pm

    You don’t know this man at all. He (in all probability!) did know she was using opiates, he might’ve even been the person who introduced her to them. The truth is you don’t know, and she had not been seeing him for very long. You weren’t fated to find him by losing your sister.

    I feel like you’re desperately searching for some meaning out of this and you’d do really well by connecting with your family, friends and a grief group or counselor.

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    • avatar

      Sea Witch December 12, 2019, 7:42 pm

      Yeah, I don’t know how someone could hide that, unless they were living in separate dwellings and didn’t see each other very often.

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