- Studies show that more than 40 percent of people experience family estrangement at some point in their lives.
- Reconciliation can be risky, so it's important to carefully evaluate whether to re-enter a relationship with a difficult sibling.
- There are no hard and fast rules on how to reconcile—or whether it's even necessary to discuss the roots of the cutoff.
"I just talked to Scott. He’s unbelievably upset. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do...”
I was stunned when I listened to this terrified voicemail from my 89-year-old mother. She was talking about my older brother—whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades—begging me to contact him and help him out of a dark place of illness and despair.
After clicking off my mother’s frantic message, I re-introduced myself to the concept of a sibling. “My brother,” I said out loud. He had been out of my life for so long that I didn’t even remember why we were apart.
Now, my mother’s desperate request raised profound questions. What is my responsibility to my brother when we’ve had no relationship for years? What is my responsibility to the family…to my mother? How can I trust my brother, who has repeatedly hurt and betrayed me?
To Reconcile or Not to Reconcile
Studies show that more than 40 percent of people have experienced family estrangement at some point in their lives. During the pandemic, many have found themselves weighing whether to try to reconcile. Aware of their own mortality, some fear that if they don’t contact an estranged family member now, they may never have the chance.
To approach reconciliation in a rational, self‐protective, yet open fashion, it’s crucial to assess one’s own feelings and the prospects for the relationship. Consider the following questions:
- Why is this relationship important to me—not to my family, or to anyone else, but to me?
- Does my family member want to resume a relationship?
- Can I set aside the anger, pain, and/or resentment that led to the break to change our pattern of relating?
- Do I want to resume this relationship even if I discover that neither of us has changed?
- What needs to be different to create a genuine relationship? (Identifying these needs helps each sibling establish boundaries for a renewed relationship.)
- Will I compromise too much of myself if I try to sustain a relationship with my difficult family member?
To Discuss or Not to Discuss
There are no rules on how to approach reconciling. Some people simply pick up a relationship without even discussing the past or the events that drove them apart. Other estranged siblings fear that they’ll continue to harbor resentments if they never discuss the source of their problems.
When they were in their 20s, Leah Barr of Naples, Florida, and her older brother stopped talking to each other. The two, now in their 60s, have never discussed the issues that fueled their estrangement. At the time of the cutoff, both had young children, and the families would alternate having Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at each other’s houses.
Suddenly, one year, Leah’s brother didn’t invite her family to the holiday dinner at his home. That seemed to be the catalyst. Afterward, when they attended a family gathering, the two would avoid each other. In time, the divide spread to other family members.
After six years, Leah says, the two finally spoke again at their mother’s funeral:
My brother and I looked at one another over her casket and said to each other that it was horrible our 59-year-old mother went to her grave thinking that two of her children were not talking. I swore I would never have another divide, even if it meant eating crow. I never want to hurt others in that way.
Yet, without an understanding of the causes, Leah says she never feels close to him. For a long time, she feared they would lapse back into estrangement.
I don’t know if I fully trust him because I don’t understand what the issue was then. How can I correct my own actions if I don’t know what I did wrong? And it’s hard to fully commit to someone when they’ve betrayed you in a fundamental way.
Leah describes their current relationship as an amicable cease‐fire, but she has no sense of peace.
How to Approach an Estranged Sibling
To promote understanding and reconciliation, estranged family members would benefit from:
- Sitting down together, face to face.
- Listening without interrupting, and without challenging each other’s stories. Seek understanding. Reconciliation is impossible without true, genuine listening.
- Acknowledging, with empathy, the other person’s hurt, anger, or alienation—even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Assume they have sincere, trustworthy intentions. When each party accepts the other's experiences, neither feels devalued or shut out.
- Letting go of anger.
- Emphasizing consistently your hope of creating a mutual bond—and your willingness to work at it.
My Reconciliation with My Brother After a 40-Year Estrangement
After that desperate message from our mother, I made the difficult decision to reach out to my brother. In many challenging but worthwhile conversations over the course of a year, we explored the reasons for the cutoff while rebuilding our relationship. I captured our emotional journey in my book Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation.
I wrote the book with my brother’s permission to share our story, and he wrote the afterword to offer his perspective. Even now, it’s deeply moving for me to read some of what he wrote: “We grew up together and we went through a lot during those years. [My sister] probably knows me better than anyone. I feel balanced that we have a relationship again...I don’t have the relationship I’d like with my niece and nephews. I can’t change the past, but at least I know I’ll always have a sister.”
Our mother, now 96, couldn’t be happier that we’ve reconciled. The work of reuniting would have been worth it for that alone. Even better, for my brother and me, there’s now a sense of peace where there was once only hurt and longing.