- Many find the crisis of a parent's passing so stressful that it breaks the sibling bond, leading to estrangement.
- Decisions of caregiving, money, and inheritance are highly charged hot buttons requiring particular attention.
- The loss of the family member who held everyone together may splinter the family’s unity.
The last months and eventual death of a parent are a time especially fraught with danger for strained sibling relationships. During this deeply emotional period, brothers and sisters vie one last time for power, love, and family loyalty, often resurrecting dysfunctional patterns of relating.
Difficult conflicts may arise over many questions, including who makes health‐care decisions for an elderly parent, how to pay for long‐term care, and who inherits precious family possessions. Old fights reignite as these issues bring estranged siblings back into close contact. Suddenly — perhaps after years of separation — they must interact effectively to make tough decisions.
Eighteen percent of respondents to the survey I conducted for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, reported that their sibling relationships ended at this life stage. Here are some of their comments:
My mother is 90 years old, and I am a full-time caregiver. My sister didn’t do anything to help.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She received poor care and not much support from my siblings. Finally, Mom agreed to get treatment at a leading cancer center in my city, but it was too late. My siblings blamed me for Mom’s death.
My sister removed valuable items from Mom’s home without my permission. She is deceitful and greedy.
The most challenging issues include caregiving, finances, and heirlooms.
Caring for parents as they decline is a relentless, painful vigil, frequently triggering unprecedented strain and stress. Typically, one child is the primary caregiver and feels unsupported by other siblings. Worse, siblings may be unable to agree on how to care for an ailing parent.
That was the case for Connie Owen, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan. She and her sister had radically different approaches to caring for their father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. As a result, the sisters haven’t spoken in a year.
She got power of attorney, and then she took it upon herself to put our father into a memory-care facility while I was at work. It devastated me and my father beyond belief. I quit my job to take care of him at home, but she wouldn’t let me. He wants to die at home, but she’s not going to let that happen. For several months, she even kept me from visiting him. I believe she likes her power.
Some adult children go further, seizing the moment of a parent’s diminished state to appropriate money from their bank accounts. And some stop seeing or caring for the ailing parent entirely.
Financial matters and wills
A rift may occur as parents lose their ability to manage finances and select one child to handle their accounts. One woman says she’s heartbroken because her sister and her beloved nieces, with whom she enjoyed a close relationship for decades, now want nothing to do with her. The reason for the cutoff: Her dad asked her, the eldest child, to take over his financial matters. As another survey respondent comments resentfully, “Now there is a new CEO in the family.”
A parent’s financial decisions might validate old, hurtful beliefs: “My parents favored him over me” or “I didn’t live up to my parents’ expectations” or “Mom thought you were more responsible than I am.” And the will — a final statement of love, approval, and power — may confirm long‐standing perceptions that have haunted siblings.
Money is always a hot button in relationships, and it’s especially explosive as a parent’s life winds down. A sibling’s true character is often revealed when financial matters pull back the curtain on cold-hearted greed.
Inheritance and possessions
Some siblings not only steal money, but also pre-emptively grab treasured family possessions. Jackie Jenson, 68, of Columbus, Ohio, learned the truth about her relationship with her younger brother when their father died. Her brother was to inherit their parents’ household furnishings; Jenson wanted only their mother’s silver.
Resentment between the two had built up over years, she says, but during this argument, the bitterness escalated into enraged name-calling. The fight became so vicious that Jenson’s brother called the police on her. In the end, she says, she would have forfeited the silver gladly, just to repair the mess. But now there’s no going back. Jenson says the loss of her dad, her brother, and her niece — all in one afternoon — has nearly broken her.
Often, the family falls apart after the person who held it together dies. Eugenie Stanley, 61, an African-American teacher in New York City, was blindsided by her only sister’s decision to terminate their relationship after their mother died:
I thought we got along okay. But one month after the funeral that we had planned together, she emptied out Mom’s bank account and stole my mother’s ashes. She tried to take half of the house Mom left me in South Carolina.
Mom was the glue in the family. After her death, my sister disowned me. I haven’t seen her in five years. She took my niece and nephew with her. The cousins all sided with her, and they disowned me too.
Estrangement is one of the cruelest forms of power and control. The one who is doing the estranging is trying to control the relationship because they know how desperately you want it. They’re saying, “I’ll let you know when I’m willing to speak to you.” It hurts like hell.
These end‐of‐life disputes can become so acrimonious that a professional field has emerged to address the needs of quarreling siblings. Elder mediators can help resolve issues such as caregiving, living arrangements, inheritance, and estate planning. A mediator also can refer families to other professionals, such as a geriatric care manager who can offer guidance on caring for a parent. Investing in expertise and a neutral perspective may offer some hope for family harmony.
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