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Learning To Forgive. Somebody Pass Me A Clue. Please.

Ron B.

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My Mother passed away last November, leaving 4 children of which I am one. My Mother's illness brought me into constant contact with my 3 other siblings, probably a good thing. I get on well with my 2 brothers, but my sister and I have had serious conflict in the past, and now we are at a kind of crossroads.

The conflict I had with my sister goes back more than a decade. Initially there were minor incidents, where one or both of us took offense at something said or done. The conflict scaled up when my father died 8 years ago. My sister's way of dealing with this conflict was to let resentment build up, and then rage-out her anger, saying anything that hit a nerve, regardless of how wrong the words were. These blow-ups happened on several occasions, causing major scenes within our family. My way of dealing with this conflict was to completely remove myself from all contact with my sister. For 7 years I did not speak to her.

It was only my Mother's impending death that changed the situation. My Mother made a solemn request to the both of us; that my sister and I completely forgive each other. It took, or so I believe. During my mother's last months I was in in constant contact with my sister, seeing her or speaking with her almost daily, and I felt the repair of a damaged relationship was well on its way.

It was only after my Mother's passing in November, that the tone changed. My sister gained control of my Mother's estate, and one of her first actions was to lock down my Mother's home. The lockdown was done on the advice of a lawyer, basically to avoid family members pillaging the estate (and yes this does happen). I was dismayed, in that I wanted to stay in my Mother's home over the Christmas holidays to grieve with my siblings. The reality was that I spent Christmas away from my family and completely alone. The next shoe to drop came in early February, when I flew down to visit my siblings. My sister used that occasion to remove all my belongings from my Mother's home; she packed them in two large bags, and handed them off to me without a word of warning. There was no way I could carry all that stuff back with me on my return flight; way to much stuff, and way to heavy. Felt like I was being evicted from my Mother's home, which was particularly difficult, because I had been my Mother's caregiver for months.

The most recent incident happened last week. I called my sister on the telephone to see how she was doing and to see whether things between us were ok. Not! I listened for 90 minutes as she took me to task in great detail. That I had been hurtful to her, that I had neglected Mom, that I had horrible faults, and that I needed to see a shrink. Many unkind words. She even admitted that she had 'steamrolled me' during the phone call. She was not remorseful; she was feeling self-righteous. I, on the other hand, just slowly eroded, and became almost silent towards the end of the conversation.

Initially I was stunned by the conversation with my sister. Days later I started thinking of all the things she said. And then little resentments started creeping back into my mind. Wanting to challenge her words, wanting to correct misrepresentations, wanting the right to air my feelings. The more it preoccupied my mind, the more insidious it became. I felt an upsurge of anger. Just this morning I realized, that I was on the wrong path for recovery. I can not continue this conflict.

Forgiveness is about letting go. I don't want to relive bad feelings and years of estrangement. I want to move on, heal old wounds, and resume a normal brother-sister relationship.

So, what am I supposed to do? Having a heart-to-heart talk with my sister does not seem to be on the horizon. Offering her no resistance seems to be my current strategy, but I'm getting battered. I will have to face her in coming weeks, when we divide up the family estate. I may lose my composure. I'm trying to figure out how to deal with that. If things get rough, I think I'll just walk away, muttering that I need a time-out.

What will help me most is to hear other people's experience with forgiveness. Has anybody else here been estranged from family or a friend and then repaired the relationship? What needs to be done to get past hardened feelings? How difficult was it to upright the relationship?

I suspect my estranged relationship with my sister is quite out of the ordinary. I just hope somebody here 'gets' what this kind of grief is about.

Ron B.

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Ron - I'm sorry for this situation, it is unnecessarily painful at a time when you don't really need more pain. It sounds like there is a significant age difference involved, and that you may be the younger in the relationship? If so, that could make it tough for you to bridge, as you will naturally be perceived as having less experience/wisdom regarding your actions.

These issues seem to be pretty deeply ingrained, and I doubt you'll resolve them in the next couple of months, particularly while you're going through the painful process of sorting out assets. But that's not to suggest that you should stuff the problem down. I think your suggestion of taking a break when you need it is a good one... but you need to execute it in a respectful way. That will be hard to do when you are being treated disrespectfully. Nonetheless, it will set a new tone for how you will both interact, and you desperately need a new dynamic. Instead of mumbling about needing a break, you could let your siblings know (all of them, not just the problem one) in advance that this is going to be a hard road, and if things get tense you intend to declare a time out until emotions are more contained. Maybe even come up with a code for it - "Time for a walk!" or "I'm going to grab some air".

Longer term, you may want to seek a counselor. It would be great if you and your sister could see a family counselor. There is obviously a lot more than grieving complicating your relationship (although that will certainly set fire to any smoldering ashes), and the bottom line is that you are never, ever going to agree with each other about all the insults and slights you each have perceived. You kind of need to figure out a platform from which you can start fresh with your relationship - not easy when you both bring a lot of hurt and anger to the table, but enjoying the future together is the prize (not recasting the past).

Best to you in the coming period.

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I am the second of 4 children. We are all separated by about one and a half years, my sister being the youngest. That makes us 3 years apart. My sister has some really good qualities. She owns and runs a coffee house, and she is generally very competent with business. She found a great husband, who has a rock-solid personality, and he's always easy to talk to. He's a cop by profession. They have a 7 year old child, 'Cozy', who likes to bury me in pillows, but she will never share her french fries. She is a joy, and I get to spend time with her. So I have some relationship with my sister's family, and that is good. It's only one-on-one type interaction with my sister that gets nasty. She gets wound up when we talk, and you just know there's going to be a train-wreck. It's still incomprehensible to me. I could avoid most talk with her, but we still need to communicate regarding estate business.

Your suggestion about how to take 'time-outs' is good. How to make the request respectful, just when I'm losing my composure, will be a challenge. I'll discuss a 'time-out' option with each of my siblings in advance of the estate meeting. Thanks for that 'clue'.

My sister would never agree to do counseling sessions with me; it would be a kind of humiliation for her. I've had private counseling and discussed these issues, but lost that counselor with my loss of employment. My old counselor says she can recommend someone in private practice, so I just need to email her to get some names.

Your suggestions are helpful; thank you.

Ron B.

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I wish I could offer some sage advice, but I have never been in a similar situation. However, the words of Doing My Best seem very sensible. All my best to you.


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I have dealt with many varieties of estrangement in my life. My dad became estranged from his family due to numerous and very arduous fights over caring for their ailing parents and making off with everything in the house. For 25 years we did not have any contact with that side of the family. Recently there have been interactions and they can get quite tense--what helps me is to simply remind myself and sometimes say out loud to them that what is done is done and can't be undone--I just want to move forward.

When my grandpa died recently my mom's behavior was ridiculous--her grieving involved reverting to childlike behavior and being rude, selfish, etc... with everyone. I am still working on getting past that myself and being able to have a relationship with her. I remind myself quite often that everyone grieves differently and it sometimes involves anger at the whole world.

During the time of my grandpa's illness my dad became increasingly ill. We have had a relationship in that he was married to my mom for my whole 40 years and although he was abusive and I hoped that my mom would divorce him I tolerated seeing him, talked nicely with him because she stayed with him. Over the course of his deteriorating health he became increasingly abusive and unable to be cared for at home--my parents were divorced right after my grandpa's death 8 months ago and he was finally placed in a nursing facility. I am now in the process of deciding what type if any of a relationship I want to have with him now that it is entirely my choice. I have talked with him twice over the course of the past 8 months--before that I saw him about once a month.

With your sister it seems perhaps you need to come up with "time-out" agreements as was discussed before things get tense and also maybe you can come up with a mantra for yourself that you can say outloud if you need to. You can't change her way of interacting and you are aware of it so you can only change how you react to it. My sister and I used to have screaming fights...we now are at a point where we can discuss tense things we disagree about even without screaming, but only by me changing how I interacted and then she was able to see differently and act differently. Me demanding that she interact differently didn't do a bit of good. At first I simply left the conversation quietly when she got going and reminded myself that that was how she handled stress, tried not to take it personally, etc...

Hard stuff--good luck!

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My Mom talked about "being the bigger person" when I was a kid, but I'm finding out it's extraordinarily hard to do even as an adult. You've offered me a few tools. Not rehashing the past, moving forward. Not getting stuck on being offended when people get nasty. That it doesn't help to respond in kind. Reminding myself of what's important. Learning to politely back out when interaction gets tense. Tolerating irritating behaviors. Not making demands. That it's up to me to change the dynamic of how I interact with my sister.

Wow. There is a lot to learn about forgiveness. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Ron B.

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