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How Can I Help A Grieving Sister Who Is Angry With Me?

Question:

My sister’s husband died unexpectedly. He had been sick for 5 years, had surgery and died 2 days later. My sister called me, I left the next day, went to her house, helped with the receiving of friends at the funeral home, attended the funeral next day and graveside. My sister was fine the first day and then the following days, she was cold as ice. She would not hug me, tell me she loved me and made statements like" You don’t know what I’m going through." My instinct tells me that I maybe I should have come sooner and stayed the whole time at her house though she has always kept me at arm’s length. It never dawned on me to stay with her night and day, but I do think that is it. Her daughters are now cold to me and I’m hurting, yet my pain is not in the same category as their’s and never would be. How can help her? Thank you so much.

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Answer:

There are at least two things going on that you should consider. The first and most primary thing is that your sister is grieving. It is very early on in the grief process and the intensity of her reaction is probably beyond the capability of words to describe. She is quite correct that you don’t know what she is going through, by the way. Nobody could, really. Each person’s grief is unique.

Your sister is very likely flooded with painful emotion and very possibly in a highly self- and other-critical place. She may blame herself for "causing" her husband’s death, by not correctly knowing the future and anticipating that some small decision that they would make would result in his death, for instance. This would be an example of magical thinking. People do it because it is comforting to believe that you could have done something to have altered the terrible outcome of having a spouse die. Magical thinking is completely irrational, of course, but it is par for the course to think irrationally when you are distraught.

The second thing to keep in mind is that you’ve described your relationship with her to be an "arms-length" one not by your choice. I take this to mean that she is either testy and stand-offish by nature, or has been nursing a grudge against you for some perceived slight or defect for quite a while. You are in a far better position to know why she might be upset with you than I.

I think it reasonable to guess your sister has been feeling quite extremely helpless and out of control, and has converted some of this pain into anger and transferred it onto you, a convenient and safe target as a means of coping and lessening that pain. If she was already nursing a grudge against you, it would make you an especially attractive and convenient target. People often are cruelest to their family members, I think because they feel more secure that family relationships will survive bad behavior. You are her sister, and are likely to forgive her for the trespass. From your sister’s point of view, it may feel much better to be angry at you or God or the universe, or whomever than to feel completely helpless in the face of her loss.

Your letter suggests that you are beating yourself up for not having been able to read your sister’s mind or to have otherwise anticipated what her wishes would be. It is extremely difficult to know someone’s mind when you are not in very regular contact with them and when they do not make their wishes clear and explicit. It is absolutely impossible to read minds. Keeping this in mind, consider that you’re upset because you failed to uphold a fairly impossible standard that real people cannot achieve, no matter how hard they try. Lay off on the self-flagellation and cut yourself a break. Actually, if anyone should be upset at being poorly treated, it sound like it should be you (based on your story). You weren’t unresponsive to the gravity of the situation by any means, and you have your own responsibilities to take care of. You went out of your way to go to your sister’s aid and stayed to help her through the worst of the organizational difficulties associated with the funeral. You may not have done a perfect job, but you did a very good one. Certainly you did a good enough one.

It sounds like I’m taking sides here but really this situation is beyond taking sides. Anyone who tries to "win" this sort of situation is missing the point that a family death has occurred and that everyone needs to help the survivor get through her pain as best this can be accomplished. Grief is a universal problem, and if it is your sister’s turn this year, it will be yours some other year. The golden rule applies in spades at a time like this: Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Forgive your sister for blaming you and expecting you to be perfect. Be the bigger person. Don’t engage your sister at the blame level. Instead, tell her you love her, and do what you can to support her through this awful time.

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