I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings, unconditional love and legacy. When my dad died, now over 5 years ago, it didn’t take long for me to realize I was now part of two new clubs, whether I wanted to join or not.
The first was that of children, young and old, who had lost a parent. It brought on new understandings, new realities and new things to share deeply with other “club members.” As I now learn of friends who have recently lost a parent, even friends I haven’t seen in decades, I instinctively feel the need to reach out. I also worry so much less about what I say than I did before losing dad. It really is the thought that counts, rather than the way we say it.
The second “club” was one I didn’t recognize as quickly: the one made up of siblings who have lost a shared parent. Since joining this group on July 13, 2014, I have learned from friends who have experienced not just the grief, but also criticism and anger among a clan of siblings.
As I write about this, I recognize how fortunate I’ve been that my four brothers and I remain a unified force as it comes to our now aging mother, and previously, our dad. Conversely, I do understand when siblings’ relationships break down over a lifetime, caused by events or patterns of behavior so hurtful or damaging that nothing can be done to reunite the sibling bond of love. I accept this and offer no judgement, only sadness. But for those who haven’t experienced that, or for who believe there could be reconciliation, and have parents still alive, I offer a few words to the wise. For being part of our parents’ aging experience – and subsequent deaths – is difficult beyond measure. It is also beautiful and opens up opportunities to look at life in a fully different perspective. As difficult (and time-consuming) as the last eight years have been for me while being a caregiver for my parents, I wouldn’t give any of those moments away.
Children for generations have been the ones to help elderly parents. Close friends often play this role when children are, for whatever reason, absent. We acknowledge some cultures as being more in tune with this than others. Some of us lose parents when they are younger, or with a traumatic death, and a child or sibling may have had little time to process or prepare for it, until the grieving that comes with death. As more and more of us live longer, often with chronic illnesses, be they physical or mental, more choices and time exists for many children to be involved, if and when they choose. I honor how much the weight of this might be when rested on an only child (or a dear friend), and although I am often the one spearheading the care of my mom now, and previously my dad – instilled due to proximity – I simply can’t imagine not to have shared this experience with my brothers. Even harder to imagine is if we siblings argued or disagreed to the point of breaking our sibling bonds because of this loss of Dad or Mom, or the way Dad or Mom were before.
- Imagine for a moment, how siblings are the the only kin we have who may (if we are lucky) share the largest part of our years on earth. They probably were among the first to know us, and may be the last to see us.
- Siblings have seen us at our best and our worst, and we have seen them at theirs. Accepting this, moving into and past it, requires humility, forgiveness, and acceptance that we don’t always know the best, or if we do, others get the opportunity to make their own choices and accept their own fates and consequences.
- Make sure to know your parents’ final wishes. One of the most difficult, and yet strangely beautiful, moments for me was meeting with the hospitalist at Meridian Park Hospital several hours after our dad’s AFib episode, and subsequent heart stoppage prior to ambulance transport. Although his heart was restarted, we knew significant damage had been done. Being in that room with Mom and two of my brothers helped me be able to clearly share Dad’s wishes, and as stated in his advance directive. Being together with most of my siblings when he took his last breath was crushing, powerful and important.
- Prepare for dealing with financial matters as early as possible by knowing the score. If there is money to be left, or debt and unpaid bills, the earlier siblings together discuss and understand – and perhaps accept – the easier this will be when a death occurs, which instills its own grief and finality. Our parents had been very clear with us kids about their financial plans and what, if anything, might be left. They set up their own arrangements for cremation with Riverview, so that after Dad died I merely (okay, merely is not exactly the right word) needed to tell the hospital where the arrangements had been made. (As I’ve written before, our dad the journalist, had also been clear about the obituary he had written, sending me updated versions over the years, and also telling us he wanted it in print in the Oregonian. Yes, he warned me: it would be expensive, adding, “but he was paying for it.”)
- Understand that each sibling’s experience in the aging and death of a parent is different. It wasn’t until writing my memoir did I recognize how different each of the five of us kids experienced, for example, our dad’s alcoholism. We were each in a different point of childhood when it was at its worst and in a different part of adulthood (and our relationship with him) when he entered recovery. The conflicts and joys we share with our parents hits each of us differently, and the better we recognize that, the easier our own sibling relationship will be, especially as we lose our parent.
- Expect that not each sibling will give the same to the aging or deceased parent. Often this is due to who lives closest or how much time they may have on their hands. Those who have both young children and aging parents are often referred to as the “sandwich” generation, creating a stress of its own. My youngest brother, still with a school-aged child, has worked hard to create a beautiful relationship with our mom, one requiring far more effort than what I needed to expend when my daughters knew grandparents who drove, babysat, and were available to provide a release for me and my spouse. Having honest discussions about how to support each other as a team is critical, but sometimes difficult when resentment develops. I have been fortunate that my brothers have always been appreciative and supportive of everything I’ve done for our parents, without criticism. Have honest discussions about who might be best at or able to do what. Never expect it to be “equal,” because it never will be. And that’s okay.
- Accept that you may not agree with choices your siblings have made in their lives. Give advice if asked. Protect yourself (and, if needed, your children) from harm. Forgive if you can, or ask for forgiveness. Then get over it.
My mom talks about legacy these days. Family was the most important thing to both our parents. Our dad would be joyous to know his kids’ sibling bonds will be strong to the end. For after all, it is only siblings who knew us then, know us now, and remember the good and bad of those moments that on some days seem like a lifetime ago.