Dear Family Advisor

Caregiving has utterly ruined my relationships with my siblings.

Last updated:

October 19, 2010

Within two years, both of my parents died. It was an awful, sad, and stressful time. But what's almost worse is what's happening now. My siblings and I are still arguing about everything, from who did what and who didn't do enough to how the money and assets were divided and who's now in allegiance with (or on the outs with) whom.

Last Christmas when we got together, and it ended up so ugly "“ two siblings left early, two others no longer speak -- that I don't think we're even going to try to get together this year. How can we move past this?

It's heartbreaking to hear that your parents' care and passing has caused such a rift in your family. You're hardly alone. The decisions and stresses that come with caregiving take a toll on adult children. But you're right: The most important thing is to be able to move on.

A therapist once told my husband and me that the only way to get over a particular issue was to get over it, literally. We agreed to disagree and simply move on because our relationship meant more than this one matter we could neither solve nor come to peace about.

These hurts, you-weren't-there-for-me's, all kinds of things that can't be fixed can nevertheless be stepped over. I hope that you and your siblings believe that your family is worth salvaging (and come to accept that imperfect people sometimes make lousy decisions, or simply decisions we don't agree with) simply because we're family.

Families give us a sense of legacy and connection. When we let that go completely, we can wind up feeling adrift and undefined. I realize that sometimes we simply can't all work things out. But for most of us, there are usually at least a few family members worth staying connected to.

I offer two approaches to bring healing to your family:

1) Woo your siblings with kindness and attention. Do this one person at a time or with several. Call weekly. Send cards. Buy small gifts, funny gifts, anything that takes the edge off the current tension. Don't talk about "the situation." Don't fuel a divisive "us versus them" spirit. Just ask about their lives and find ways to help out or be encouraging.

Show them with actions that you want to move forward. It's hard to not respond to genuine love and kindness. Even if only one reacts, one is a start.

2) Stage an "intervention." If you can get your siblings together, pour your heart out. Talk not about the past but about how important family is, and let them know you want to forgive and move on, knowing each of you did the best you could. Or try this approach in a letter, an e-mail, or a video, if you can't all be in one place. This may also make it easier to prevent one person from pitching a fit and undoing your good intentions.

At the same time, you must move forward with your own life. It's so easy to dwell on an issue and miss the point that your life is pretty terrific otherwise. We're so much more attractive to ourselves and to others when we're engaged, learning, growing, changing, and making new connections. There's no guarantee your family will come around. But you can surround yourself with healthy people anyway.

If you can't get together with your sibs during the holidays this year, invite your friends and neighbors over. Surround yourself with joy. Years ago I started asking my kids if they knew of anyone without a place to have Thanksgiving or Christmas, and since then we've always had a few guests at our table. Many folks don't have siblings or extended family, or are single, widowed, or can't go home -- and they're so appreciative to be invited. For us, it's also kind of exciting to have a new dish at the table and different conversations than the "same ole' same ole.'" Who knows? Your siblings may find out that your house is the fun house for the holidays and stop by themselves.

We can't always fix the past. Sometimes we just have to leap over it and move on.