Sibling estrangement seems to be everywhere. I’ve always known it was common, but I hadn’t reflected on how pervasive — and accepted — it is. Most of us are either part of a family where one of the adult children is alienated from one or more siblings, or we count such a family among our acquaintances. It often comes down to just a shrug of the shoulders when someone admits he or she hasn’t talked to a brother or sister in years. Airbrushing out of the picture a sibling who’s embarrassed us, bruised our feelings or cheated us financially looks easy.
Often it involves the theme of the prodigal son. I’ve just finished writing a novel about two long-estranged brothers, Nick, the prodigal, and his stay-in-the-hometown brother, Ben, the good one. Ben’s raised a family in North Dakota, Nick’s raised hell in San Francisco. Nick ran out of money and went homeless before collapsing in a diabetic coma in Golden Gate Park. Notified by the hospital, Ben finally relents and arrives loaded down with resentment against Nick. Both are in for surprises.
Stretched out over years, estrangement can easily lead to complete cutoff, where nothing is known about a sibling: whereabouts, address, phone number, friends. That’s when ambiguous loss kicks in. Ambiguous loss is what the writer Pauline Boss calls the situation in which “… there is no verification of death or no certainty persons will come back or return to the way they used to be.” Consider cases of dementia or severe depression, when the person is physically present but psychologically absent. Or consider the case when the person is physically absent but psychologically present: a POW in wartime or postwar, a sibling lost in a natural catastrophe, an absent parent after a divorce, an immigrant family broken up by separation.
We want the person back. Brother, where art thou? Or father or mother or son or daughter or sister: Where art thou?
Or we may not, if we’re estranged from an adult sibling who’s gone homeless halfway across the country after months or years of little or no contact, who suffers from addiction or mental illness, who’s been a drain on our psychic energy and a distraction from our own families.
Estrangement twists ambiguous loss. The absent brother or sister is both physically and psychologically absent. We don’t grieve the loss. At best we live with it, not knowing how to resolve it, or not caring to. At worst, we welcome it. We’re frozen. We are OK with absence. Years ago I wrote a feature story about the life and death of an older woman who had been homeless off and on. The article found its way to her siblings in Canada. They hadn’t seen her or heard from her in many, many years, but recognized her from the description of her life, the little clues that said, “That’s our sister.” They contacted the nursing home and immediately brought her body home for burial. They could finally grieve.
People are living longer these days. There’s more time to re-establish a relationship with an estranged sibling. Over the years, the hurt that sparked the estrangement may have dissipated. The anger and blame may have receded. Family therapy may have helped the brothers and sisters to examine their own part in the situation. Lucky are those who find resolution before the death of the absent sibling.
It was 2,000 years ago that the Greek-speaking Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote these lines: “If your brother wrongs you, remember not so much his wrongdoing, but more than ever that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you.” (Enchiridion 43.) Easier said than done, Epictetus. But on the money.
Paul Mohrbacher is an author and playwright living in St. Paul. His recent novel “Brothers,” published by Keen Editions, is available through Amazon.com. or Common Good Books and Subtext Bookstore in St. Paul.
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