The death of a parent is one of the most painful losses we will encounter. When the life of that parent is marred by addiction, his or her death can complicate the relationships between surviving family members.
This month's letter addresses a family, first torn apart by addiction, and then gutted when their newly-sober mother succumbed to cancer.
If you have any thoughts you'd like to share with our letter writer or with this community, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
Dear Dr. Jill,
I am a 43-year-old woman whose mother died of cancer about six months ago. She was my only living parent. Even though I have a younger sibling (age 40), lately, I feel more like an only child.
Growing up, my mother was a single parent. She was also a hard-core alcoholic. Most of my childhood memories are of her, either passed out or acting strangely, and me, feeling terrified of what would happen next, desperate to shield my sister from my mother’s behavior.
About five years ago, Mom got sober. Two years into her sobriety, she made amends with me. We were just starting to rebuild our relationship when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died roughly two years later. I was devastated.
Though losing my mom has been difficult, I’m actually writing because I’m not sure what to do about my sister.
My sister moved to the East Coast after high school graduation to get away from mom’s drinking. She never looked back. My sister is still really angry at my mom for the years of drinking and even judges me for being so “quick” to forgive her.
Mom tried to work things out with my sister but my sister was never really open to this.
Since Mom died, I have tried reaching out to my sister but each conversation seems to regress back into my sister’s anger toward my mom. Anger I no longer feel since Mom and I repaired our relationship.
At times, my sister’s rage is more than I can handle. I find myself making excuses just to get off the phone—or avoiding her calls altogether. This is not what I want for our relationship.
I love my sister. I want so much for us to be close like when we were younger. If things don’t change, I’m afraid the distance between us will keep growing.
Have you encountered similar situations? If so, what advice can you give about how to deal with them?
My Sister’s (Anger) Keeper
First off, my condolences for your loss. How very sad it is that your mother’s life ended, just as it was beginning anew.
The death of a parent, for siblings, tends to be scissors or glue: it either draws them closer together or widens the chasm between them.
My Spidey senses tell me you and your sister want the death of your mom to be glue but your sister can't stop herself from charging at you with scissors!
You are grieving the most recent version of your mother while your sister is grieving the mother she fled after high school (i.e., a very different mother). Even though you technically lost the same person, your grief looks and feels different right now for this reason.
What’s more, I would venture to guess your sister feels conflicted about her choice to decline your mother’s attempt at making amends. This choice was likely made under the auspices that your mother had more time than she did. It is also a choice your sister cannot go back and change now that your mother is gone.
If given the option to feel sad and vulnerable or angry and powerful, many of us will choose the latter until we are strong enough to be with the former.
It is hard to be caught in anger’s slipstream when you are feeling hurt. Thus, I recommend limiting conversations with your sister to the times you feel fortified enough to hold her pain. When you do speak with her, set limits if she becomes disrespectful. If she is unable to heed those limits, politely end the conversation and try again later when she's more calm.
Though you care deeply for your sister, you are not responsible for her choices or the feelings she has about them. And appropriate self-care is nothing to feel guilty about.
That said, anger needs only to be acknowledged (sometimes over and over again) for it to recede and, when it does, what usually rushes forward is sadness. I suspect your sister will be easier to connect with once the hard edge of anger is softened by her sadness.
In the meantime, because you deserve to be supported in your grief, I recommend connecting with close friends, other family members, a support group for adult children who have lost parents, etc. Grief longs to be witnessed. Ideally your sister would be that witness but, right now, she’s too steeped in her own grief to hold yours. It's unfortunate. And, it's not personal.
Finally, remember that grief is fluid. It moves around a lot. Just as you will not always feel this sad, your sister will not always feel this angry. Keep showing up with your boundaries intact and, when she is ready to put down the scissors, the relationship is likely to feel a lot more like glue--for both of you!
Your In Health,
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, counselor and dating coach in the Phinney -Greenwood area of North Seattle. If you and your siblings are struggling with the death of a parent, help is just a click away. Schedule a free consultation to see how grief therapy can help restore peace in your family!
Money. It's a loaded topic. So loaded that it happens to be one of the three most common things couples fight about. Sex and children are the other two. Just in case you were wondering.
Last week, a reader asked for help with compulsive spending behavior. Since this issue is actually quite common, I am posting both the letter and the response here on the blog.
If you've got thoughts on this subject, feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Dear Dr. Jill,
I have a little spending problem. Actually, if I’m really being honest, the problem is more than little. I seem to have a penchant for maxing out credit cards. I maxed out three credit cards in ten years. Whenever I saw something I wanted, I was pretty good at convincing myself I *had* to have it, even though, deep down, I knew I really couldn’t afford it. After making a purchase, I would feel good for a while. But then the bills I couldn't pay would show up at the end of the month and I would end up feeling guilty.
I was hopeful for change when, three years ago, I met and got engaged to a really wonderful man. When my fiancé and I met, he had a good job. He was really good with money (he had no debt because he preferred to pay cash for everything). In an effort to start our financial lives off with a clean slate, my fiancé agreed to pay off my debt. I thought my problems were solved!
We shredded all of my credit cards too. I felt scared about the idea of not having any credit cards but I also felt free. My fiancé put us both on a budget that I promised to stay within. This seemed to work for a while.
A few months ago, I received a credit card offer in the mail. I knew it was a bad idea but I went for it anyway. Here’s the worst part: I didn’t tell my fiancé. I can’t say for certain why I didn’t tell him. I guess I thought I could handle it on my own. I was wrong.
I told myself I would use the card only for emergencies. But, a few weeks into it, I started making purchases. A pair of winter boots here, a new sweater there and so on. I told myself I would take care of it by the end of the month but, when the bill came, the balance was more than we had in our checking account! Afraid that my fiancé would find out, I shredded the statement and told myself I would take care of it next month. That was almost two months ago and I still haven’t done anything.
The wedding date is now three months away and we will soon be required to make the final deposits for the caterer, venue, etc. If we pay off my new credit card, we won’t have the money to pay the vendors for our wedding.
I’m scared to tell my fiancé what happened. I’m afraid he will be mad or, worse yet, end our relationship. He is really the best thing that has ever happened to me. I don’t want to screw this up. Can you help me figure out what to do?
Dear Secret Spender,
I am relieved that your secret has finally been given a voice!
Engagements and weddings can bring up a lot of complicated feelings. I’ve yet to meet anyone (well--anyone who is being totally honest!) who hasn’t had at least some fear or self-doubt prior to getting married. “How will marriage affect my independence?” and “What if the relationship doesn’t work out?” are two of the most common questions asked by the betrothed. Perhaps the recent bout of spending is your way of grappling with these questions, without addressing them directly.
Compulsive behaviors, such as drinking or spending money, are often used to help mitigate painful or difficult emotions, like fear or self-doubt. The only trouble is, by engaging in compulsive behaviors, we end up creating more of the feelings we were hoping to assuage in the first place! In other words, you are now quaking in the very boots that were originally meant to keep some of your fears at bay.
When we choose to make something a secret, we give it power. It’s possible the latest transgression may be inviting you to reclaim this power, first by telling your fiancé exactly what happened. It is better your partner hear it from you than a disgruntled wedding vendor or agent seeking to resolve a debt he is completely unaware of.
Regardless of what your partner chooses to do with the new information, you will have taken a bold, brave step toward reestablishing trust in the relationship. Assuming you both choose to proceed with the relationship, you and your partner, as a united team, can make informed decisions about how to meet your impending financial obligations.
Another way to empower yourself is by seeking therapy with a qualified addiction specialist. A professional of this nature will have the skill set needed to help you learn constructive new ways of managing discomfort while protecting yourself and the relationships you treasure. Organizations like Debtors Anonymous are also great places to get support from like-minded individuals. Compulsive spending is treatable but it can also be tenacious. So I urge you to consider getting the support you deserve and committing to it for the long haul.
You’ve made an important first step by sharing your secret with this community. I encourage you to keep the conversation going, both with your partner and with a good therapist. Thank you for writing in!
Yours In Health,
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA.
One morning, not long ago, I overheard a conversation between the host of NPR's "Morning Edition" and some distinguished law professor from one prestigious university or another—you know the drill.
The two were bantering back and forth about the meaning of the word "truth." Up until now, the word has always been understood to mean any thing or event that actually happened. Apparently, truth's ratings have been sagging; Donald Trump wants to give the word a sorely-needed makeover.
In the 2003 movie "Something's Gotta Give," Harry (played by Jack Nicholson) and his love interest, Erica (played by Diane Keaton), are struggling to create a meaningful connection with one another. Harry, a long-time womanizer with questionable integrity, explains that he has never lied to Erica. Instead, he has always told her "some version of the truth." In response, Erica snaps back, "The truth does not have versions!” Indeed, until about a month ago, it did not.
If The Administration has its way with us, the definition of "truth" will stretch to include opinions or ideas that, when emphatically stated over and over again, are accepted as fact, regardless of their veracity. If the public buys this new-and-improved rendition of truth, as a psychotherapist, I cannot help but wonder about the impact this will have on our intimate relationships.
I am often enlisted to provide individual and couples counseling for those whose lives have been shattered by dishonesty. People lie or keep secrets about all sorts of things: history, fidelity, spending, addictive behavior and, in extreme cases, even their identities.
Whether big or small, I have found all lies have one thing in common: they forge distance between ourselves and our intimates. A lie is a carefully built wall that neither we nor others can scale.
The basis of meaningful connection is shared reality. If I see a dog and you see a fish, any conversation we have about this animal will be meaningless. A lie renders impossible the shared experience upon which trust and intimacy are predicated.
Why, when given a choice between closeness and distance, do some of us choose the latter? I think it happens for several reasons.
Lies are exponential: we must continue to tell them to keep truth hidden. This can get tricky so most skilled liars tell partial truths to avoid slipping up. Partners may get some of the “who, what, where, how, when, and why" of a story but any detail that threatens to topple the house of cards will be withheld.
No matter how adept any of us are at deception, it is in only the rarest of cases that the truth remains indefinitely hidden. Truth demands to be told. Lying forfeits our jurisdiction over how and when this happens. We may think we've done a sufficient job in covering our tracks but it is only a matter of time before we forget to minimize the screen before our lover enters the room, log out of a secret email account, or are spotted by a co-worker or neighbor doing something we shouldn't be doing.
We avoid the truth to prevent suffering but, in so doing, end up creating far more of it. Instead of grieving only the pain of a difficult truth, the deceived is humiliated over having played the lead role in a story without full access to its script. Additionally, those who have been betrayed suffer tremendous doubt. Doubt of themselves for misplacing their trust and doubt about where the line between fact and fiction existed their relationship.
In the aftermath of betrayal, the two most common questions I hear in therapy are “Will I (we) get past this?” and “How long will it take?” We will explore the answers to these questions in Part Two of this series. So stay tuned.
In the meantime, has deception played a role in any of your past or present relationships? If so, what did you do about it? Feel free to share your thoughts anonymously in the comments section below.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Has your relationship been torn apart by betrayal? Schedule a free consultation to find out how couples therapy or counseling can put you on the road to recovery!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.