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 are 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!
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.