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Dear Family Advisor

I'm trapped between honoring my mother's wishes for her memorial "“- and alienating my siblings.

By , Caring.com contributing editor
Last updated: December 30, 2009

My mother is Jewish, but my late father was Christian. My siblings and I were raised Christian and were closer to dad's side of the family. As Mom's primary caregiver, I've been attending temple the last few years with her and have enjoyed exploring this part of my heritage. Mom is approaching the end of her life -- she has lung cancer -- and I've been helping her make plans.

She'd like to be buried with her parents in the Jewish section of our local cemetery. Our father was buried in his home state and bought her a plot next to his. That isn't what she wants now, but my siblings say we should be practical and not spend the extra money -- and that none of her family or friends will appreciate the Jewish traditions of not having a viewing, having the service within 24 hours, and not having flowers (things Mom wants). I think it's most important to honor Mom's wishes. How do I get my siblings to see that we should focus on what she wants?

Try not to think of this as an either-or situation. Perhaps there are ways for your family to honor both your mom's and your siblings' needs at this time.

Some people believe that a person's funeral or memorial requests should be followed to the letter. Others feel that services are more for the living -- as a way for them to cope with their loss. Every culture has a way to deal with death. Funerals and memorials actually help with grief -- familiar rituals and traditions can give loved ones a sense of closure as they come together to honor us, and these rituals bond us with our community. How we honor those we love as they go through the dying journey is important -- and healing -- to everyone involved.

It's wonderful that you've spent some time exploring your Jewish culture and faith. But your siblings may not "get" where you're coming from, and people tend to be judgmental of the unfamiliar. They might feel as if a part of their childhood and your dad's contributions are somehow being threatened by you "choosing" Judaism. Be open, friendly, and inviting, and try not to argue about religion with them.

Gently remind your mom that all of her children love her and need to feel they've had a chance to say goodbye in their own way. If she agrees, you might be able to plan a service that incorporates elements of both faiths. Or you could plan two events: a Jewish service within the first 24 hours and a later Christian-based service.

If expense is an issue, think simple and small. If your siblings want a larger event, share the budget with them and suggest they pitch in if they choose anything her estate can't afford. The empty plot doesn't necessarily have to go to waste -- maybe one of your siblings would like to be buried next to Dad someday.

As your mom's primary caregiver, you're her advocate. Talk openly about what she wants and honor that as much as you can, but build a bridge for your siblings to reconnect with her. Don't wait to put on a fancy service to show that you loved Mom. Show her now.

Your mom can continue to draw strength from both her faith and her family now. Invite the rabbi to visit. Ask her extended family, your siblings, and dear friends to stop by. You could create a regular visiting time -- maybe Saturday afternoon -- and just hang out together. Tell crazy-funny childhood tales, and make your mom laugh again. Rebuild the bonds that may have frayed over the years. Old wounds may heal as everyone comes to know one another again.

Try to compromise about the service, but let go of trying to please everyone. If any siblings get ugly about memorial plans (and they might), choose to stay calm and focused. You're about to face your mother's death, and you don't need to get sucked into a family drama. You'll probably be the one to handle most of the details -- while your heart is breaking. Meanwhile, she wants to know that her choices will be respected. Stay focused and be there for her.

She has the right to make these decisions -- and then it will be up to you to carry them out as best you can. Remind your siblings that your parents loved each other -- they didn't let cultural or religious differences tear them apart while they were alive, so their kids can do the same. All of you are losing your mom, and sometimes fear comes out as anger or hurt.

Strive to come together with kindness and patience and a heaping dose of understanding. I'm sure your mom's deepest hope is that her family surrounds her with love -- and peace -- at this most important time. Do the best you can and know deep inside you that you love her and you've done all you can to care for her -- and that's good enough.