Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My only sibling and I lost our mom earlier this year to a surprise infection that set in following routine surgery. She wasn’t sick, rather she was very healthy, so it was a total shock to us and very devastating to the whole family to see this vibrant, youthful woman deteriorate before our eyes.
I have been seeing a grief counselor (quite helpful) and have been relying heavily and gratefully on the support of my family and friends. The one person I expected to rely on most, my sister, has been supportive but surprisingly not devastated, even somewhat distant. At one point I expressed surprise at how well she was taking our mother’s death. She explained to me that following the death of her son (at age 3, two years ago), she does not think she will ever experience any other form of grief in the same way — losing a parent does not come close to losing a child in terms of the grief it causes.
I do not have children, so I have very little basis on which to react to this. Sis has always seen a counselor since her son died, and has not made any changes to her routine since Mom’s passing. It seems to be business as usual. We were both very close to Mom, and I cannot help but feel somewhat abandoned, a little betrayed on Mom’s behalf, and worried about my sister’s reaction. What should I do?
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Nothing, except to keep tending to your grief in the ways you know are working, and, if you can, to find a way to stop judging your sister. She has seen her world shatter into little bits, something from which parents just don’t fully recover. I don’t think it is within the human capacity to react, two years later, as if that hasn’t happened. Consider that she’s not taking your mother’s death “well,” she’s just in a version of “business as usual” that already accounts for so much grief that it’s not possible to notice a difference when there’s more. Imagine dumping Lake Superior into the Pacific.
Yes, I’m projecting here — I don’t actually know your sister’s mind or heart — but even though I still cry over the mom I lost 12 years ago, I can wake up sobbing just from a nightmare about one of my kids, even after I figure out it was just a dream. It’s just a whole different universe — we’re socialized to lose parents, but not children. That doesn’t mean one is less significant, it’s just that the former feels like nature, even if sometimes premature, and the latter feels like a crime against it.
It also seems probable, if not likely, that part of what you’re seeing in your sister’s “somewhat distant” response is numbness. She also could be upset that you don’t grasp what she’s going through and instead expect her to feel as you do.
Please don’t take it personally yourself or on your or your mother’s behalf. Just know you have to lean on someone else — at least until you’re strong enough to let your sister lean on you, when and if you’re willing.
I’m sorry about your mom and your nephew.
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