Band of Brothers, and Sisters

The most lasting and enduring of relationships.

Till Death (of Our Parents) Do Us Part

Sibling turmoil upon the death of a parent

After a recent lecture I delivered on “Enhancing adult sibling relationships,” a gentleman approached me asking if I had a minute. From the morose manner of his request I suspected that he needed more than just a minute to unburden his heart. So I asked him if he could hold on while I answered some of the more quick questions from the group of audience members looking to have a word with me. Apparently my talk went well considering the number of people waiting in line.

Waiting patiently until after all the questions ended, this individual, Dave, asked if we could talk in private. I found a secluded corner in the hotel lobby where Dave and I could sit and talk.

After some brief niceties, Dave became emotional as he began describing for me a brewing family crisis. His widowed mother has recently passed after a long battle with breast cancer. As he and his sister, Rachel, were working together on the funeral arrangements a minor disagreement about a funeral religious ritual devolved into a hurtful exchange which then exploded into an all out war. The funeral and the ritualistic post-funeral days of mourning were extremely contentious.

They have since cut off all communication with each other except for a few cruel emails. In one of these insidious exchanges Rachel reveled that she had pent up bitterness towards Dave about her primary role in taking care of their ailing mother. She felt Dave did not do his share in taking care of their mother as she was losing her battle against her devastating illness. In Rachel’s words, “I was always the one taking care of her from the beginning. Even as kids I did much more for the family than you ever did.” As the older sibling, Dave felt the responsibility of healing this rift and was looking for some advice. Intervention was desperately needed considering that Dave and Rachel had much upcoming work do to liquidating their mother’s estate and, as things stood, progress was at a standstill.

Unfortunately Dave’s story is not unique. It is very common for past grievances to resurface during the difficult days following the death of a beloved parent. Emotions are high, everyone is exhausted, and difficult decisions need to be made which makes for a volatile situation.

When there are unresolved family dynamic issues below the surface it creates an even greater likelihood of a difficult and contentious period after the death of the parents. This is similar to coping with death overall. Pre-death characteristics are a strong predictor of post-death adjustment.

It is infinitely important to allow for unresolved sibling family dynamic issues to be exposed and processed before it’s too late. This can be done as a family alone or with the assistance of a trained psychotherapist. Allowing these destructive feelings to linger will only make the inevitable death of parents an even more hurtful occurrence.

On the other hand, when a strong sibling bond exists it can be relied upon as a source of much needed comfort in a time of sorrow. When a parent dies, having siblings to seek solace from has been shown to help immensely in the healing process. Adjusting to the death of a parent is made easier when you have siblings going through the same grief together.

After allowing Dave to express his pain over both his grief and the ensuing family discord we devised a plan to help him reconnect with his sister. After some initial resistance by Rachel, she was willing to meet Dave and deal with her resentment in an open manner. They were able to move past some of these hard feelings and ended up supporting each other as they undertook the difficult task of emptying out their mother’s home. As they were going through some old boxes from the attic they came across a photo of their parents and them on vacation at the Jersey shore. Seeing the family all together made the pain of losing their parents palpable but they were able to use their bond as a source of strength. The tragedy of losing their parents was made more bearable considering that they were working through their pain together.

Avidan Milevsky, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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