Help! My Brother Committed a Murder-Suicide.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 13 2012 6:15 AM

Making Up for Murder

How do I reach out to a family irrevocably damaged by a member of my own?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.)

Got a burning question for Prudie? She'll be online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers each Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion.

Dear Prudence,
Two years ago, my adored 28-year-old younger brother committed suicide after murdering his estranged wife's new boyfriend. My brother had depression and anger issues, but I will never understand the chain of events that made this act viable in his head. This has been devastating to my family. I did not know the man he murdered, but I know many of his friends. I tried to not mourn publicly, but I did not handle things well in social media. Sometimes I would mention my loss and these mutual friends were kind to me, but I still feel that I should have kept my mouth shut. I know that I had no fault in my brother's act, but since then I have isolated myself from them in person out of shame and associated guilt. (I am working on this with a therapist and in support groups.) I would like to reconnect with these mutual friends at Christmas when I return to my hometown, but I'm scared and worry that I will cause pain. The main issue is that the victim's brother also returns home for Christmas. My family has not reached out to the victim's family, which has been pretty much the universal recommendation. However, it is entirely likely that I could run into the brother, which terrifies me. I would actually like to have a meeting with him to convey how sorry I am for his loss, and that we have much in common. He may even have questions I can answer. But I fear reaching out and causing pain, while I also fear an unexpected meeting in a social setting. What should I do?

—A Sister

Advertisement

Dear Sister,
As you and your family know, you are also victims of your brother’s unspeakable act. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was caught because his brother David turned him into the FBI. After David got the $1 million reward, he paid his lawyers then distributed the rest to the victims and their families. He and his wife also wrote letters of apology, not because they had been aware of his brother’s crimes at the time—as you did not know your brother’s plans—but as a way to deal with their own guilt, grief, and pain afterward. Not all of the families responded, but a few did. I support your desire to reach out to the victim’s family. But it must be done with delicacy and with the knowledge of the limitations of this act. Before you do it, talk to a lawyer just to clarify how you might word a letter. You don’t want to unwittingly leave an impression that your family knew of your brother’s intentions. Then I also think it would be worth it to get advice from a victim’s organization on what such a letter should say. (Here are two: Parents of Murdered Children and Compassionate Friends.) Yes, you are suffering, but in reaching out to the victim’s family you have to be careful not to make parallels between your two situations. Your focus should be on your sorrow over their pain, not on the pain you have in common. It also would be a good idea to ask a mutual friend to deliver the letter so that it doesn’t come as a shock. Doing this won’t return your social relationships to the way they were. But taking this action should make it easier for you to come home and to reconnect with friends, who surely have compassion for your agony. By contacting the victim’s family, when and if you run into the victim’s friends and loved ones, you will have the words from the letter ready so that you can express your sorrow in person instead of feeling you should duck away. As you’ve recognized, social media is great for a lot of things, but it is too blunt an instrument to deal with the complications of such a painful situation. Continue to work this through privately with your therapist and support group.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Hair-Raising Dilemma

Dear Prudence,
I'm in my mid-20s. My mother divorced my good-for-nothing father when I was little and then went through a string of useless boyfriends. She has finally found a wonderful man and they are engaged. The problem is her insistence on blending his extended family with ours at holidays. Our side of the family only sees each other at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many of us feel that it is important that we spend that time together, instead of shouting to each other across a huge dining table filled with people we don't know. I have been tasked with bringing up to my mother that people weren’t happy with Thanksgiving and are concerned about Christmas. When I broached this with her she became upset and accused me of not wanting her to move forward with her life. Spending the holidays apart from my mother is the last thing I want, but the rest of my extended family has been discussing holding Christmas festivities somewhere different if my mother decides to try blending the families again. My mother is incredibly stubborn and has never accepted being wrong before. How do I show my mother that we are all happy for her, but that her major life change shouldn't mean erasing all of our holiday traditions and the precious little time spent together without strangers?

—Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,
I know what you mean about traditions. Yours is this year’s version of the annual letter I run that can be summed up as, “I want Christmas to always be the way it used to be.” I assume your side of the family has expanded and contracted over the years as people marry, divorce, children get born, and loved ones die. Your mother is now in the incoming tide phase of this ebb and flow. I’m a little confused about the logistics here. If your mother is the hostess, then she has the prerogative to make up the guest list and people should be grateful she’s doing it. If others don’t want to come, that’s an individual choice. Keep in mind that these “strangers” are going to be part of your family, so after a couple of get-togethers they will become familiar faces. But if the celebration is at someone else’s house, then your mother has to check and see if it’s feasible for her to add to the list and by how many. It’s one thing to ask to bring her fiancé and his children. But it’s burdensome and presumptuous if she expects to include, to mix holiday metaphors, his mishpocheh. It’s an unpleasant personality trait to have gone through life never able to acknowledge being wrong. But knowing that about your mother tells you what you’re dealing with. Even if most of the family decides Christmas has gotten too unwieldy, maybe there’s still a compromise and someone could host a drop-by on Christmas Eve or even the 26th, for those who didn’t get to see each other Christmas Day.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I'm in human resources at an organization with a conservative culture. As part of vetting candidates, I Google them, check Facebook, etc., to see if there is anything of an embarrassing nature. One young woman candidate, age 23, has me stymied. She has a professional-quality website chronicling her many accomplishments and a perfectly innocent Twitter account. Her recommendations are lovely. But everything on the Web about her has happened since 2009, the year she graduated from college. No Facebook account, no Myspace. I find this weird. I have never known a person under 25 who wasn't all over the Web in high school and college. I thought of asking her, but if she's clever enough to sanitize a Web presence, wouldn't she have a story ready, too? I don't want make unfair assumptions or ask an inappropriate question, but I also don't want to be the idiot who hired someone who was in a sex scandal and have my career go down in flames. Should I take a chance? Is there a perfectly logical explanation I have not thought of?

—Stumped

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.