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A group of my friends and I were sitting in our classroom waiting for the teacher to get there and start class. Two of my friends, Jim and Maddie, were talking to each other (and they were about the only ones talking in a group of seven so it’s not like I was eavesdropping). They haven’t talked much at all before and so they were going through the basic questions, what do you like to read, how many siblings do you have, etc. They got to the siblings question and Maddie asked Jim how many siblings he had. He said, “Eight ... nine.” After a brief moment for the humor of not counting your siblings because there’s so many he explained that, “Yeah, one of my brothers, he died.” And she said, “Oh.” And he said, “but we still count him.”

Now I didn’t catch, “died” but from the syllable spaces available in his speech I’m going to guess that he said “died”. He said it without much emotion and didn’t look effected by it afterwards, like it was a fact he’s said many times before. I know this can be an extremely sensitive topic, but knowing that his brother died brings up more questions for me. Like how old was Jim when this happened? Was he even alive? (He’s the youngest of the nine and the oldest is 20 years older than him, so that is very much a possibility.) How/why did his brother die? How old was he when he died?

EDIT: I haven’t run into many people with deceased immediate family, just Jim, another friend (who I didn’t ask any questions) and myself. My twin died when we were three days old, so I never knew her, which means it never affected me. She never had a face and a personality, so it’s kind of just a fact to me, though a fact I treat with respect. So I have very little experience in this area.

I’ve known Jim for six months, and I would say we are friends, and not just friends because of circumstance or that we’re in the same place. Still, I’m not sure how to ask these questions or even if it would be appropriate. Depending how old Jim was when his brother died, he could have varying degrees of his own emotional connection.

We do get to talk one-on-one when nobody else is around, but that usually lasts a max of 10 minutes. We also talk one-on-one when there are other people around.

I know that these questions are very hard to ask and can be very hard to answer, especially if the topic is not brought up by the person who it happened to. But I feel like it will give me a better understanding of his life and the things that might have had a role in shaping his character.

Question: How should I approach asking these questions? Is it even ok to ask for facts about such a sensitive topic? Should I resign myself to just not knowing?

Other Info That Might Be Useful

  • Jim is 16 years old and I’m female and a year older.
  • If you are familiar with the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, Jim is Extroverted Thinking. I just thought those two letters might be helpful.

Please let me know if there is any other information I can provide that would help people answer my questions.

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You have transformed Jim from "someone in my class I've known for 6 months and don't know much about" into "that guy whose brother died." It seems like he might be the first person you've ever met who has lost a relative. You have so many questions! You're curious! That's cool. But when you decide that your curiosity is entitled to answers, you cross the line to nosy. As for "it will give me a better understanding of his life and the things that might have had a role in shaping his character", unless you're his therapist or are about to marry him, this is a completely spurious reason. I doubt you are suddenly gripped with a need to know the things that had roles in shaping the characters of all your other friends, are you?

Jim clearly shows no hesitation in mentioning his brother when it's relevant. So I suggest you let Jim continue to be a whole person - a person with hobbies, fave TV shows, fave foods, siblings, parents, things he likes to read and so on. Just talk to him the way you always have. Don't ask him things for no other reason than your own curiosity. Talk to him. Just be friends and chat as everyone does.

He is likely to mention the brother again at some point. When he does, start with a piece of information about yourself (eg "wow, I never met anyone before who had a sibling that died") before asking one question (eg "how old were you?" or "what happened to him?"). You will know by his response how he feels about it -- short little half sentences mean "I don't want to be rude, so I'm answering you, but I don't want to be grilled on this". If he seems to want to talk about it, and you're enjoying learning about it, then cool, it's just like him explaining curling or knitting or something and telling you about the time he won a contest, but do keep in mind that it's not just that, because it's something that may be very painful for him. Avoiding that pain is more important than satisfying the idle curiosity of a friend, even a very close friend.

  • Thank you for your answer @Kate. I will not ask him about it. You are right that I haven’t run into many people with deceased immediate family, just Jim, another friend (who I didn’t ask any questions) and myself. My twin died when we were three days old, so I never knew her, which means it never effected me. She never had a face and a personality, so it’s kind of just a fact to me. So I have very little experience in this area. – Nadeshka Feb 21 '18 at 19:26
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    In that case, your one piece of information could well be "oh, I had a twin who died when we were three days old" -- it sort of gives you something in common and lowers the nosiness factor a little. – Kate Gregory Feb 21 '18 at 19:33
  • @Nadeshka I think that could also be relevant information to add to your question. It certainly makes your curiosity seem much less goulish. – Spagirl Feb 22 '18 at 17:04
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Ask him more about his family, what do they like to do, that kind of things. If he wants to talk about his deceased brother then he will tell you about it himself. When he starts telling you about his deceased brother it is the proper time to start to ask questions about it. Asking things like this out of the blue will probably harm the relationship with him.

Personal opinion: I understand that you want to know more about him, his family and deceased brother. However I think you should not ask him at all about this (or be really subtle about it). When he wants to talk about it that's fine, however it will easily make him talk about things he actually does not want to talk about. This is also why I advice to talk about his family in general instead of his brother. If he does not start talking about the subject, it would be best for your relationship with him to drop the subject.

Note that if he really wants to talk about it with you, he will pick up the subject himself.

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