An unexpected challenge developed for me less than a year after I lost John. I never considered I would have to answer questions about him, questions about my family, to people I just met. Everyone in my life at the time of John’s death either knew John or knew of John. There was no question of my sibling status.
Once I graduated from college and started a new job, I began meeting new people: people who did not know me or my family, people who did not know of my loss, thus the question arose, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” The first time I was asked this question I froze. I don’t remember what I answered. It caused a lot of anxiety for me and prodded my still-healing and open wound. Not only do I have to grieve the loss of my brother, now I have to think about how to present this to new people I meet –people who don’t know John and never will.
Even today, a decade later, meeting new people is still difficult. I always find myself thinking: What will they ask me? When will they ask? How much do they really want to know? How will I answer? More often than not, the question inevitably comes, “So, do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Since John was my only sibling, this means I am an only child now. I never know how to answer. I want to contribute to the conversation, but I don’t always want to invite questions. If I don’t speak, I feel left out and alone. If I say “No,” then it’s like I am disrespecting John’s memory or I’m ashamed of how he died, which I’m not. If I say “I had a brother, but he passed away ‘x’ years ago,” the next question that typically follows is, “How?” This is a difficult first conversation and you have to be prepared for the comments/questions/judgments that will likely come your way.
The first few years after John died, if I met someone I knew I wouldn’t have much contact with, I would answer as if he was alive: “Do you have any siblings?” Yes. A brother. He’s eighteen and in college.” Obviously, this was easier early on. Now that I am twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, it gets harder to pretend, causing more questions, such as “Wow, why is there such a large age gap between the two of you?” Then, I am lying not only about his death but other things as well. This was a coping technique I needed to use more within the first five years of John’s death. As I moved into the final stages of the grieving process and was able to accept his loss, I can now answer this question truthfully or not at all if I choose to.
Another method I use to field questions I don’t want to answer is to answer the question quickly, without much depth, and immediately throw a question back at whoever is asking: “Do you have any siblings?” “No. How about you?” Or… “Yes, but he/she passed away ‘x’ years ago”… (do not stop, do not pass go)…“What about you?”
If I do not want to answer the question at all and I am in a position to do so, I pretend I did not hear the question or feign a distraction. Then, I barrel ahead with a question for them, hoping they will forget. There are many creative ways to get around answering uncomfortable questions, especially as you adjust to this change in your life. It is up to you to find out what will work best for you, but keep in mind it will likely change from situation to situation and that’s okay too.