The other day was National Siblings Day. In years past I’ve shared a goofy picture, remarking on my place as only daughter in a family of five kids. Placed strategically in the middle. I write this blog with a bit of hesitation, as I know I am darn lucky to have the relationship I do with my siblings, following an event when many sibling clans struggle. That all being said, maybe this can be impetus to those without to imagine what can be done to prepare for what lies ahead.
What was different this year, I only today acknowledged, was for the first Siblings Day, we siblings are without either parent living. Frequently I have thought about how much both our parents would cherish knowing the legacy of children (and grandchildren) they left behind. And, in fact, I had forgotten that I had already not only written about this in My Music Man, after the passing of Dad, but I blogged about it just over a year ago (see: Siblings when the going gets tough). Rather than simply repost that now dated, but still relevant blog, I thought I’d freshen it up. For, in those six+ years since our Dad died, I have watched over and over my friends also lose parents, some moving into tricky sibling territory.
Do my brothers and I always agree? No. Do we get frustrated with patterns of behavior or communication or differences in belief systems? Yes. Am I often the controlling/one-to-handle-details sister? Yes. Are we hopefully getting better in moving ahead anyway, knowing that what matters most is the unconditional love we all share? Yes. Our parents were big talkers – and givers – of unconditional love.
Some, far more learned than I, have studied and written about the aftermath of adult siblings’ relationships after parental death. The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study found parental death associated with a decrease in sibling closeness. The parent’s use of advance directives did not have uniformly positive effects on those adult siblings’ relationship quality, although relationships improved when someone other than child or spouse had durable power of attorney for health care. I suppose that can be instructive to many. I too believe, though, that some families can still hold durable power of attorney by paying attention to all of this and nurturing sibling relationships prior to parental death –again, understanding, this not to be the answer for all families.
And now, I will repurpose and update a bit of that original blog as the points still speak to me, perhaps even more powerfully.
- Imagine for a moment, how siblings are 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. Fast forward to our recent decision to have Mom live and die in our home, and fully support her care and needs was beautiful, difficult, and fully supported by my siblings.
- 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 and paid for their own arrangements for cremation.
- 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. It was later when I uncovered our different relationships with our mom. 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 parents.
- 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, 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 wondered about her legacy, especially toward the end of her life. What I know, is that 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.