Dear Family Advisor

My sister didn't call in time for me to say goodbye to my mom, and I can't get over the hurt.

Last updated: Aug 29, 2009

It's been six weeks since my mom died of a stroke, and I just found out from another relative that my mom was in the hospital for three days before she died and my sister informed me of her death. I had moved a state away to take a job a couple of years ago, and my sister apparently resented that she was left to handle caregiving. (My mom moved in with her last year.)

I would have given anything to have been with my mom and tell her goodbye. Our dad is gone, too, so my sister and I are the only ones left. I know I need "family," but I'm angry and hurt. How do I talk to her about this? And will it do any good?

You have a right to be upset. Even if you weren't the primary caregiver, you loved your mother, too, and it's hurtful that your sister didn't call when your mother was very ill. But there's a bigger issue here. You're struggling with getting a sense of closure, and the good news is that the closure you want has to eventually come from you.

You can't rewind the clock, but you can create your own ritual -- something that brings you close to your mom and gives you the opportunity to say all the things you wanted to say to her, including goodbye. This is more important than whatever happens with your sister, and it's necessary for you to be able to move forward with your life.

Rituals are not a bunch of hooey: The reason humans invented funerals, memorials, and wakes is that we need to ask forgiveness, forgive, thank the person for who she was and is in our lives, reminisce, tell her it's OK for her to go, and then to say goodbye. This process is a way of incorporating all the person has been to us and of starting to let go. Every culture and religion has its traditions, and this is not by accident. It's a leg of our journey we can't bypass. And it's not too late for you to do this.

Ironically, since you weren't physically there to say goodbye to your mom, you're free to decide how you want to do this and whom you want to include. Did you grow up in a religious home? Do any of those traditions feel good to you or would some other kind of ritual feel better at this time in your life? I gather you were at your mom's funeral, but this is a different and more personal way to say all you need to say. Perhaps you'd like to have a ceremony at a church, with just you and a priest or rabbi and your mom's picture. Or maybe you'd like to go to your favorite place or your mom's: the beach, a mountaintop, or a meadow.

Put some thought and effort into creating your own unique ceremony. Say or write or videotape all you'd like to say to your mom. Don't limit it to the "nice" stuff. This is a time to clear your heart and come to a real sense of love and acceptance that's truly healing.

Include a few items such as a necklace that belonged to your mom, her favorite Bible or poetry book, your journal, a picture of her and you. You can bury something, burn something, sing a song, talk out loud -- whatever you need to do to enable yourself to be with her in those passing moments.

This grief is the good kind of grief. We can't hide from it or ignore it or even use our anger and hurt at our relatives to avoid our own emotions. This isn't about your sister and you as much as it's about your mom and you.

If you choose to talk with your sister, decide what you want to say, even write it down and rehearse it -- and let it sit for a few days. People do more damage than they intended by not giving themselves time to explode privately and then cool off. Once you've really mulled it over, decide how to deliver your message, whether by phone, in person, in an e-mail or letter, or whatever seems best. Then say it once and let it go!

You're not responsible for how your sister takes your message, but you're responsible for delivering it with thought and loving truth. The reason I urge you not to hold onto this grievance is that your sister was under a lot of stress and was probably scared and didn't know what to do. Most people aren't as vindictive as we think they are. And if she really did want to feel in control or punish you, then that's her issue, not yours. I've made lots of mistakes -- acted or not acted when I should have -- and I hope that I'll be given a measure of mercy. The only way I will is to begin to offer it to myself and others.

I believe that you're longing to say goodbye to your mom, and when you do you'll feel so connected with her that you'll feel lighter and more full of hope. Saying thank you, I love you, and all that you need to express is more for you than for anyone else.

Your mom will always be with you. Even though my mom is no longer here on earth, her encouragement, wisdom, advice, and humor are still with me -- and I've actually started listening to her advice!