Happy Birthday, Sis, Assuming You’re Still Alive

If you are estranged from a family member, you might not know whether he or she is still alive. This is an odd concept for many of my friends whose families vacation together, babysit each other’s kids, and celebrate every holiday together. Would anyone tell me, I wonder, if my sister died? And what would my reaction be? Assuming I didn’t hear about it months after the fact, would I go to her funeral? Would anyone there know who I was? Would they even know she had a sister?

You see, I come from a long line of family estrangement Olympians. We’re not amateurs here given to snits that last a week or two. Ruptures aren’t measured in months or years but in decades. Children go from diapers to driving cars during our estrangements. People get gray hair and lose their hearing. They change careers and move across the country. But because we are estranged, people stay in the same emotional place as they were when the break occurred. If someone was angry, frustrated, quick to react, unthinking in words chosen, she stays that way, frozen forever as someone to cast out, someone whose casting out was justified. Even though the one casted out might now be serene and compassionate, introspective and calm, careful and measured.

My sister is 70 today, assuming she is still alive. We haven’t spoken more than two or three sentences in twenty-three years. The last time I saw her, several years ago, she was standing with my brother on a hill in our home town cemetery after the graveside service for our mother. There was no mutual comfort, no shared responsibility for our mother’s funeral or for the taking care of our aging father. An opportunity to reconcile missed by mutual consent.

Years before, deep in a 10-year estrangement with my parents, I’d driven many hours to the same cemetery to pay my respects to my grandparents. Driving up the dirt road, turning left at the oak tree, I parked and right away saw two headstones with my parents’ names on them. “Oh my God, my parents have died,” I told my husband. “They died and no one told me.” I’d imagined this happening for years, figuring that the only way I would ever know they were dead would be that Christmas would pass without getting a Christmas card from them – our only contact for years.

But they hadn’t died, not yet. In typical fashion, they had, however, planned ahead. Both headstones were ready for them with only the end date to be filled in. We stayed not long. Unnerved, I wanted to get out of the cemetery, away from the shade of the oak tree, and be long on the road away from the decisions I’d made that resulted in our estrangement.

I’m not happy that my sister and I are estranged nor do I feel it’s justified on either end. The loss is enormous, a loss so big I won’t understand it until we are reconciled. And yes, I’ve tried to make things different but to no avail. The person who was my sister doesn’t want that role. “I have everything I need,” she told me the last time I contacted her.

I paused at that line in her email.  So tight and final.  She doesn’t need what I have to offer.  She doesn’t need a sister.  She just doesn’t.  But I think I still do.


In 2008, I wrote a piece published in Newsweek called “The Power of ‘I Am Sorry’.” It’s about ending the estrangement with my parents. Many people have found it to be helpful in sorting out their own situations. Here’s the link. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/09/05/the-power-of-i-am-sorry.html

11 Comments on “Happy Birthday, Sis, Assuming You’re Still Alive

  1. The honesty and raw buried emotion shown in this wonderful piece of writing is striking and sad. It would give anyone in such a circumstance reason to contemplate, reflect, or reach-out if it’s inside one to try to do so.

  2. My sister decided she didn’t like her family a few decades ago. I’m assuming she’s alive because I haven’t heard anything to the contrary, but I don’t know if she is in touch with anyone in the family. The older members have passed on. My brother is gone as are both our parents. So I’m not sure anyone would know who to get in touch with. It is a hard thing to explain and I appreciate you trying to make some kind of sense of it.

  3. Reblogged this on Red's Wrap and commented:

    I came across this piece today as I was working on my ‘archive.’ It has a valuable message and is worth sharing again.

  4. I always enjoy your postings! we all have issues with our relatives… It is painful i know but thank God we have friends… take care sis

  5. This is powerful stuff. I know from experience how painful these kind of things are. You describe it beautifully, heartbreakingly. The greatest sorrow here in reaching out and finding out it wasn’t enough to bridge the gap.

  6. Oh, I suspect she needs a sister very much. Very moving. Wishing you peace.

  7. I can relate. Sort of. My father’s parents each so distanced themselves from their respective families of origin that by the time we grandchildren came along, we were told they were each only children, and that my dad consequently had (in addition to having no siblings) no cousins. Truth started to come out at the cemetery – my great-grandmother was buried in the town I went to college in, and during my first weekend on campus, my dad took me to her grave. Ooops – there were mysterious headstones there – my grandmother’s brother’s wife. The truth came out. The good news is that within about ten years, when I was in my early 20’s, my father finally tracked down his dad’s family, and I helped convince my grandfather to accept his brother’s overtures. Same with my grandmother, and her long-lost brother. By the time they all got around to communicating, it had been some fifty years of silence. And nobody could remember what the problem had been that kept them estranged…or if they could, they didn’t admit to it. The effect on my father of all that estrangement was profound. One day, he has loving aunts and uncles and cousins. The next day, he does not. It still pisses me off.

    • That is a pretty amazing story. I can just see the cemetery scene. Family estrangements are pretty damaging — people like to think that they don’t really care but they end up missing the absent relatives a lot. Kids, especially, miss out on relationships that could have made their lives richer. Sad.

      • In our case, we were lucky to reunite with this fantastic branch of my grandfather’s family – accomplished, Jewish (who knew?), funny, close – ARRRRGHHHH!. I hope you and your sister connect again at some point, and I’m very glad you connected with your dad.

  8. My sister and I aren’t estranged, but she disappears for years on end, resurfaces, and disappears again. The first time, my brother and I were ready to hire a PI, but then she showed up–out of the blue.
    I really enjoyed this post, and will follow the link to the article about your estrangement from your parents.

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