My brother’s wife died a year ago – and I hate his new girlfriend

Illustration of woman in rain with outstretched hand as couple walk away
'She says things like “I don’t want to be the invisible girlfriend”. Oh how I wish she would disappear'

Dear A&E,

My sister-in-law sadly died a year ago, after a long illness. My brother and his children have been through the most awful time. We are all incredibly close and I have really been there for them. But I hate his new girlfriend and the way she is trying to insert her way into their lives too quickly. She says things like “I don’t want to be the invisible girlfriend”. Oh how I wish she would disappear. Of course, he is really happy.  How do I make him see that she’s not right for him?

Love, Devoted 

Dear Devoted,

We are so sorry for your loss, Devoted. It must have been an extraordinarily difficult time and you have clearly acquitted yourself with honours. What a thing to have gone through. We are sure you have held your family –  a little broken unit –  together in the kindest, most brilliant way and now, dear Devoted, you need to detach a little (a lot) and let them limp on, as the healing process continues.

Because, and this is quite bold, there is absolutely nothing you can do that will have any positive outcome in this situation. We all have to understand our limits in healthy relationships and it sounds as if you have been holding on to your brother so tightly you have assumed a maternal role. You have provided what was deeply needed in the absence of your sister-in-law. You have been running things and suddenly something has shifted and there are shoots of recovery through the concrete cracks of grief. He is busy starting again and you are still metaphorically stroking his brow, being marvellous, dispensing wise words, sage advice and sympathy. Suddenly it seems as though he might not need you as much, and you no longer understand your role. This will feel very uncomfortable.

But, Devoted, it’s probably worth accepting that there is no way to control this. You cannot “make” your brother do anything, and it sounds to us as if you need to reclaim your own space and freedom. Your life has been on hold and now you can take the time to re-engage with it.

Perhaps you need to allow yourself some time to grieve the death of your sister-in-law. In our experience, those who get very busy when someone dies are often denying themselves their grieving opportunity, consciously or subconsciously. Perhaps you filled your grief space with your family’s feelings and now you can sit back and look at the incredibly sad thing that has happened and think about how it has changed all of your lives. This isn’t making it “all about you”, by the way. It’s about understanding the amorphous mass that is a family and knowing that, when the shape of it changes, that hurts. It sounds to us as if you are feeling all the stages of grief right now – anger, denial, bargaining – and perhaps projecting them on to your brother’s new girlfriend.

The invisible woman. There is no playbook about how to date a widower. If you take a step back from the morass of emotion, you might see that it is probably very difficult having the ghost of a dead wife to live up to. There is a difference between someone who’s just not your kind of person and somebody who is empirically appalling. You cannot air your concerns with your brother because they are not evidence-based apprehensions. They are based on a feeling you have.

Trolling through our pasts, we cannot think of a time when someone told us that they disapproved of our partners and we did anything about it. Instead, dear Devoted, it won’t do any harm to welcome her. Remember that you have no power in this, so being kind to her doesn’t mean she’s more or less likely to stick around. Perhaps you might uncover something lovely about her. You are not going to learn anything, hands on hips, glaring at her like an interloper. Some gentle curiosity on your part might reap benefits and, over a cup of coffee or a walk in the park, you might find some treasure, as we so often do when we look at people carefully.

You’ve done your brilliant best for your brother and for your niece and nephew. Now you can step back to let them heal and look to their future. A terrible thing has happened and they know you will always be there for them. You have done so much, Devoted. Time to do nothing but look after yourself.