Dear Family Advisor

I can't get over my resentment at my sister and brother for not being there when my mother was dying of cancer.

Last updated:

July 07, 2008

My mom died of cancer about 18 months ago, and she lived with me until the very end, when we put her in a hospice-hospital where she passed away. It was a two-year period of intense care that put strain on both my health and my marriage. I also quit my job to take care of her, but my sister and brother did next to nothing -- not even offer to help financially. Though they live two hours and five hours away, they didn't even come to see her at Christmas. They did show up a few days before her death, and they put on such a show at the funeral that you would have thought they did everything for her. They accepted loads of sympathy from our extended family and my parents' friends, which made me sick -- mostly for my mom.

Now my sister is planning a big family reunion, with matching T-shirts and a rented hall, but I don't want to go and make chitchat and act like nothing happened. My brother called and gave me the "family is important" lecture. I used to be pretty judgmental about people who haven't spoken to their siblings for years. I thought, "Just get over it." But how do I get over this? I don't respect them anymore. I don't want to get to the point where I never speak to them again, but I'm so disgusted, I can't seem to get my head and heart around this.

Be disgusted for now. You have every right to be. You put your life on hold to care for your mother's needs, at great personal and professional hardship, while your siblings seemed to sail through it all carefree. And you are angry and hurt not just for yourself, but for your mom.

Remember, though, that all of you will live with your choices for the rest of your life. No matter how convincing your brother and sister may have seemed at public memorials for your mother, in private they know that they did not do right by her, and I doubt that any amount of posturing can comfort them about that. For your own peace of mind, try not to focus on what they didn't do, but on what you did and what you gained from the experience.

Even if openness and honesty are not your family's way -- and it sounds like they're not -- I would strongly suggest having a frank talk with your siblings. First, try writing your feelings in a letter. Put down everything you need to say. Don't hold back. Part of the reason you may feel so "stuck" is that you've never allowed yourself to say everything that's bothering you. Don't worry about sending the letter. Let it marinate awhile until you see what parts of it "stick" and feel truest to you. Then sit down with them and tell them exactly how you feel -- talk about all that you went through and how very disappointed you are.

This will probably be very difficult, but confronting them head-on can't be any worse than holding your resentment inside and silently cutting off relations with them. It's certainly healthier for you. And you need to hear their side -- not because it will excuse their actions, but maybe it will help you understand them better. Only then will you know how you want to proceed with your relationship.

In regard to the family reunion, let me ask you this: If your brother and sister weren't attending, would you be interested in going to see your other relatives? If so, go. Don't let your siblings' involvement keep you from seeing the rest of your family. On the other hand, if your interest in the reunion doesn't extend to the broader group, you just may not be ready for a family get-together. That's perfectly understandable, and there will be other chances for that. Don't let your brother guilt-trip you into thinking that you don't already know that "family is important."

Above all, try not to let your anger and resentment fester inside you. Use them as fuel to get you out of this emotional swamp to the place where you should be: content with your own choices and happy for what care giving gave to both you and your mom.