When being an aunt isn’t all sunshine and roses

In Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert writes of aunts:

Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because
they were childless, these women had spare income and compassion
to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take
in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls
these sorts of child-rescuing aunties “sparents”—”spare parents”—
and the world is filled with them.

Even within my own community, I can see where I have been vital
sometimes as a member of the Auntie Brigade. My job is not merely to
spoil and indulge my niece and nephew (though I do take that assignment
to heart) but also to be a roving auntie to the world—an ambassador
auntie—who is on hand wherever help is needed, in anybody’s family whatsoever. … In this way, I, too, foster life. There are many, many ways
to foster life. And believe me, every single one of them is essential.

Gilbert’s discussion of “sparents” and their ways of fostering life reminds me of a story I heard on NPR’s StoryCorps back in March. Abby Libman’s life changed forever when her brother-in-law killed Abby’s twin sister, leaving behind two children (ages 7 and 4), whom Abby took in and raised. I encourage you to listen to the brief interview between Libman and her now 23-year-old nephew. For Libman, her role shifted from aunt to mother, and as she navigated through that difficult time, she was most importantly fostering the lives of those two precious young children who would grow up to think of her as “mom.” She was the ultimate “good aunt” to her sister’s children.

Aunts are often on the sidelines of storms in their own family’s lives, and sometimes, they must step onto the playing field to help their nieces and nephews. They watch from a distance as marriages fall apart, and nieces and nephews become distant after a divorce. Or they step in for a mother who is physically present but emotionally unavailable after a divorce, and those aunts become more like society’s traditional idea of “mother” to the children.

One of the women I interviewed spoke of lying awake at 3 in the morning, worrying for the safety of her nieces during her brother’s struggle with addiction. He’s now sober (praise God!), but when he wasn’t, his sister was a “sparent” to the girls, trying to ensure their safety as much as possible while helping her brother get to the point that he wanted to recover from his addiction.

Just recently, I spoke with an acquaintance whose wife has brought her nephews to live with them because of abuse that was going on in their home. We simply cannot downplay how critically important these aunts are to the lives of so many broken children. As Gilbert says, there are so many essential ways to foster life for these children in our lives.

The forgotten grief
One of the women I interviewed, we’ll call her Lula*, reminded me that being an aunt isn’t always sunshine and roses. Her niece is one of my dearest friends, Andrea, and I consider Andrea’s children to be part of my “unofficial” band of nieces and nephews.

Andrea’s youngest daughter died this week four years ago. She was only six years old.

Her death was shocking not only because it was sudden and unexpected but because it was caused by an illness (asthma) that most of us think is controllable. She had just finished kindergarten and was enjoying summer vacation and talking of living in Hawaii someday. She was larger than life, and some may even describe her as a spitfire. She was sassy, beautiful and a diva in all the good senses of the word. She was kind, too, and won anyone’s heart who met her. She loved all things pink, purple and princess, and this is just one small item that reminds me of her:

A tiara to remember a princess

How can anyone adequately describe the grief over the too-soon death of that little girl? My friend, her mother, will never be the same again. But four years later, there are those around her who forget about this grief and forget to ask how she’s doing in the process of the grief. There are those who never speak her child’s name to her, for fear of churning up new grief.

This forgetting happened even sooner for Andrea’s aunt Lula. Lula still grieves, but there are few friends and acquaintances surrounding her who acknowledge that her grief for her great niece still feels raw and fresh some days. And though she needs a support network much like Andrea does, Lula grieves in a more isolated way.

Those of you who have experienced deep grief like this will know that the swirl of the still-living goes on around you, even when your own world seems to have come to a standstill. You make the choice one day to slip back into the swirl, and at first, the swirl eddies around you, hovering, comforting, embracing you back into life. Then the eddies slowly fade as you begin to move again as part of the current of the living. But it doesn’t mean your grief has disappeared.

I write this post in honor of one very precious girl whose death so many of us still grieve. But I write it, also, in hopes that you may be reminded of a friend or an acquaintance or a family member who has lost a niece or nephew or some other dear child, and that you would reach out to that person. I don’t know what you might say, because each of us grieves differently, but I know that the reaching out itself is essential.

If you have experienced a grief like this that those around you have already forgotten, please write in with the questions you’d love to hear from your friends, or tell us the ways you yearn for your friends to reach out to you to let you know that they are available to support you during your grieving, even if the grieving lasts the rest of your life.

* To protect the privacy of the women I interviewed, I have changed all names.

3 thoughts on “When being an aunt isn’t all sunshine and roses

  1. My heart hurt for you, Andrea and Lula as I read today’s post. I love my nieces and nephews so much – I can’t imagine the pain of losing one of them. My heart goes out to all who knew the little girl. Aside from the sadness of this particular post, I am enjoying reading the Good Aunt series. Great job, Hope!

    • Sorry to spread the sadness, but this is always one of those weeks of the year that sadness comes to me whether invited or not. Thanks for your kind words and for understanding an aunt’s perspective. The love we feel is different than a parent’s love for a child yet still strong and enduring.

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