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Of course, how the sibling relationship plays out is as varied as the players. Sisters are historically the source of ongoing sibling connections, but brothers may step up as well. Yet, Levitt reminds, “If you have a pack of brothers, you could find that they really don’t keep in touch or they keep in touch in a way that looks like not keeping in touch. For them, it’s ‘Oh, no, we’re close’ — and maybe they see each other every two years.”
“Problems with siblings are one of the biggest regrets among older adults,” says Safer. “Even if we never see them again, which sometimes is the right thing to do if you do it in a mindful way, they exist within us.”
Adds Levitt, “If there’s a reluctant sibling, for example, I wouldn’t ever stop inviting them even if they never came. And sometimes, even in a later age, people will outgrow their resentments and there will be a reconciliation. As long as we’re breathing, we can resolve whatever there is to resolve.”
But there may be limitations.
“There’s a certain amount of grieving that one has to do for things that never have been and never will be, that not everything is fixable in the family and the sibling relationship,” says Safer. “Some resentments are just too deep to get over.”
“There are some sibling relationships that really are toxic and that are better left alone,” says Levitt. “Apart from those, it’s an absolutely irreplaceable connection and, for me, I would go as far as I could to maintain the connection.”
Would you ever give up? Only when, Levitt says, “you have evidence that your suffering is greater than the possibility of reward.”
Reaching out to connect
Safer offers a few steps toward reconnecting with an estranged sibling:
After parents are gone, people need to first “work through sibling relationships within themselves — whether they ever talk to the siblings again or not.”
Questions to ask: “Why do I want to do this? Is it for Mom and Dad? Is this because maybe I feel like there’s something to this person? Is this for my children or their children?”
Think about how your sibling sees their childhood experiences. Ask yourself: “How does my sibling see our family and me? Who is this person, independent of my relationship with them? Who are they as a friend, parent, spouse, professional?”
“Realize this person probably has a lot of resentment about stuff you don’t even know about and in different ways than you think.”
Don’t e-mail. She recommends a handwritten letter or phone call to say, “ ‘I’d like us to talk about some of the things that might have gone wrong when we were kids so we can have a better relationship now that Mom and Dad are gone.’ Direct. Straightforward. And you have to be willing for your sibling to say no.”
If they say yes, listen and acknowledge what they’re saying.