- When confronted with an estranged sibling’s death, some are as stunned by grief as the relatives who maintained a close connection.
- A person may question their obligations to a deceased, estranged sibling and the family, wondering whether or not to go to the funeral.
- Some people have had successful deathbed reunions with estranged siblings, but sometimes a visit can reopen old wounds and bring more regrets.
The illness or death of an estranged family member can present one of the most vexing moments for those cut off from that person and/or others in the family.
When I surveyed the estranged for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, respondents who had experienced or tried to anticipate their feelings about an estranged sibling’s illness or death expressed deep confusion:
"When I found out my sister died, I didn’t feel anything. We had not talked in months. I don’t feel anything. No feelings of emptiness or loss."
"I haven’t talked to my 81-year-old brother in four years. What do I do when he dies? If he passes before me, should I go to the funeral?"
"My brother is a stranger to me. He has never been loving, comforting, or supportive of me. I don’t think I would bother to go to his funeral."
When confronted with an estranged sibling’s death, some are as stunned and shocked by grief as those relatives who maintained a close connection. Complicating matters, an added layer of loss and regret plagues some estranged mourners. Death closes the door on any possible reconciliation; thoughts of “if only” and “I wish” may torment an estranged sister or brother.
“Even loving and connected relationships usually hold some regrets,” explains Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first openly transgender person to be ordained by a Reform Jewish seminary, who works in a hospice in San Francisco. “Our lives are not tied up in neat bows at the end; we are messy, complex beings. This is even more true in cases of estrangement. Having a regret is not the same thing as having made the wrong choice.”
Many wonder what to do to acknowledge their loss. When the final curtain is about to fall on a sibling relationship, some feel compelled to take some kind of action. Rabbi Kukla warns that contacting an estranged family member before he or she dies may not be productive.
“In my experience of serving people in hospice,” he blogs, “you are equally as likely to regret what you do in haste as what you don’t do out of caution. Enormous harm can be done, both to the dying person and their family, if they reconnect out of a panicked fear of regret. A visit that reopens old wounds can bring more regret than no visit at all.”
Rabbi Kukla suggests that it might be more helpful to write a letter or a poem or send photos of yourself to an estranged relative who is dying. A letter doesn’t need to say everything—and if it does say “everything,” the best choice may be never to mail it.
To go or not to go to the funeral
A family funeral raises even more vexing questions. What are my obligations to the deceased and the family when we haven’t spoken in decades? Should I make an appearance at the funeral? Should I send flowers or offer condolences? If so, to whom?
It’s virtually impossible to generalize about the emotional response or the best course of action when an estranged sibling dies. Sister Renee Pittelli, an adult‐child recovery mentor and victims’ advocate, and the founder of an online support group called Luke 17.3 Ministries, conducted one of the few surveys posing the question about attending an estranged relative’s funeral.
She found that only four of 72 respondents who filled out her questionnaire said they would attend the funeral of an estranged family member. Most felt no obligation to go to the funeral or to support others in the family—no matter how long they had been cut off or who had ended the relationship. Those who did not go said they had no regrets. Some expected to be criticized or judged for not attending, but they said that would not affect their decision. Sister Pittelli explains that families often expect relatives to mourn any and every relative, even if the deceased was an abuser.
Rabbi Kukla recommends that estranged loved ones who don’t attend the funeral might conduct some sort of memorial service of their own to remember the deceased.
Different approaches to an estranged sibling’s death
Even given the warnings above, one woman found that she actually was able to heal old wounds at her estranged brother’s deathbed. When confronted with his terminal illness, she felt she couldn’t ignore him any longer. Their estrangement began when she reported to the police that another brother had sexually abused her. The terminally ill brother took the side of her abuser and lied to the police. Consequently, she cut him out of her life.
After reconnecting with her brother on his deathbed, the two talked about why he lied. He apologized, and she forgave him. Eventually, he passed away in her arms, and their final reconciliation gave her comfort and peace.
Similarly, blogger Traci Foust chose to visit her terminally ill estranged sister before she died. In a moving essay titled, “What I Said to My Estranged Sister on Her Deathbed,” Foust, who hadn’t spoken to her only sister for 12 years, describes what it felt like to see her one last time as she lay jaundiced, skinny, and barely able to breathe:
What ignorant cowards an unfixable past can make us. My sister was barely hanging on ...“Hold me,” was the last thing she said ... I curled the whole front of my body into hers, squeezing through her sickness, trying to get inside all those years we had wasted.
Foust’s experience is a cautionary tale and an important reminder that estranged siblings should contemplate how they’ll feel when a brother or sister dies and anticipate how they will handle the loss—before circumstances make the decisions for them.
Kukla, Rabbi Elliot, (Dec. 2, 2019) "Grieving when you're estranged from your family." https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/when-theres-no-hollywood-end…
Sister Renee Pittelli, Luke 17:3 Ministries, accessed August 19, 2020, www.luke173ministries.org
Traci Foust, “What I Said to My Estranged Sister on Her Deathbed,” MamaMia, October 22, 2013, www.mamamia.com.au/said‐estranged‐sister‐deathbed/