Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
I have begun to see many ways that my sister is peeling away from me. She is dying at age 68. At least, that is what she tells me. She’s not on hospice, but I can tell that she has given up on this life. It no longer matters to her.
Nothing pleases her. Not even the arrival of spring after a pain-in-the ass winter of freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. Trying to get her to look forward to being able to sit outside on her deck, I ask if she has the bird feeders up. “No, it’s not my job to get them ready.” she says.
I question if she has filled the hanging baskets of flowers to hang on the latticework above the deck. She usually has a dozen or so absolutely stunning magenta, gold, and purple cascading flower arrangements. “More work. I can’t do it.” Thinking something has changed since last year when she proudly sat amidst the flowers and talked about all the birds and butterflies she purposely attracted to her yard, I invite her to talk about her plans for her yard this spring. “Don’t have any,” she replies. The bitterness she feels turns her voice a rancid spouting out of negative vibes. I wish to stop talking to her. But, I can’t because I am her sister.
My sister changes the subject. She says, “No one needs to come to my funeral. I won’t have any. That will show them.” My heart does a little skip and a gasp, and I falter in response. “Everyone has a funeral,” I say. But, I know that isn’t true. She could go to her death hoping that everyone would feel badly about there being no celebration of her life. That would suit her.
You see, my sister is crabby. She likes to get even. I guess I would have to say those are her two strongest characteristics. She often tells me that when her husband’s behavior annoys her. She says, “I’ll get him. Just you wait and see.” And, she does. The next time I talk to her she tells me how she is hiding money from him. I can read her mind as it triumphantly declares, “Got him! He will never know.”
Sheltered from these thoughts of my sister by decades of years spent apart—our only communication by phone and occasional cards and gifts—no longer can I avoid the intrusion of thoughts about her. I feel conscious of her demise growing like a tumor—bigger in my mind—taking thoughts from other events. Maybe that is what happens when we get older. I can remember my sibling and what we did when we were young. But, every day more of her is lost, never again to be found.
I feel like I have sympathy toward her but no connection. Other than weekly calls to her and listening to her complaints, I don’t make a difference in her life. What can I do?
It sounds like you are feeling an emotional disconnectedness. Your sister is carrying around a lot of gloom inside her. All of the negative words she expresses likely reflect the conflicts she has. You cannot fix her situation and that’s okay.
You are doing good by listening because this validates for her that her feelings are real. Keep making those calls and listening. Although it may not seem so, your sticking with her as she sorts through her life in these conversations may be healing. Many siblings do not recognize what you do—that sisters and brothers face many emotional battles as they meet the end of their lives. Sometimes, siblings are working through the loss of knowing they will miss loved ones. Other times, they are watching their own physical selves deteriorate. Whereas the baby-boomer generation thought themselves invincible and able to conquer all challenges, they now understand they cannot avoid the challenges death brings. The baby-boomer generation now faces the penultimate of experiences—preparing for death.
You are not alone in facing a sibling who is experiencing anticipatory grief. Complaining about the losses brings death into view. Having this phone time with your sister can be surprisingly healing for your sibling relationship. You realize what makes your sibling tick. You come to terms with the fact that the paths people walk through during life are different because we all are one-of-a-kind. Sibling lives—although lived in tandem—are unique. Your willingness to listen makes you special. Your sister is lucky to have you with her at this crossroad.