Can I finally reconcile with my dying brother?

There are so many things I need to talk about, but he says not to get too emotional.

Published September 5, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My only sibling was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer early this year. He has never been forthcoming with emotional stuff and in fact told me of his illness via e-mail. When I spoke to him about this, he asked me "not to cry and get all emotional."

That felt like I was being denied my reactions, similar to the circumstances following my father's death almost 50 years ago when I did not have a chance to say goodbye (children were not allowed into hospital rooms in the mid-'50s) and my mother was consumed with her own grief and refused to see the impact on her children. He is the sole living relative I have (aside from my teenage child). He currently is in treatment and the chemo has been successful in slowing the spread of cancer, but the fact remains he is terminal.

I want to talk to him about us, our family, our relationships, how I want to be closer to him, but it is hard 1) to be closer and 2) to talk to him about it when he is in fact closed. His wife and children are supportive and there for him and each other but I feel like I am out in a field by myself. I feel I cannot discuss any of my stuff with them as they have their own set of emotional baggage to deal with. This diagnosis has welled up many unresolved issues about our long-deceased parents as well as my failed marriage and bad relationships.

I resumed therapy a few months ago to help me sort through the range of feelings but I am still left with the depressing feeling that my daughter and I are on the B list and his death will leave me with additional unresolved issues and unvoiced, unanswered questions. Push comes to shove, I know he loves me and has been there for me.

Do I raise any of this to him? Or is it really the case that it is all my stuff and it should stay within the therapeutic walls, and I should be satisfied with what I do get emotionally from him?

Only the Sister

Dear Sister,

I don't think that he will ever give you what you wish he would give you. Now that he is dying, that is especially true. So your task with your dying brother is to come to see him as perfect the way he is. That way, you can let him go.

If he dies and you are still wanting something from him, then you may never be able to let him go. You would always have an ache for him. So try to accept him as he is and let him go.

And rather than wanting something from him, think about what you can give him.

What does he need? He needs to know that everything is OK. That's why he doesn't want you to get all emotional. That would mean his death is causing you pain and he doesn't want to see you in pain.

Family members try to protect each other in baffling ways. The cold silence that reigns in some families seems to arise out of the belief that emotion equals pain so let's not have emotion.

You and I know that it's more complicated than that, that emotion equals heat and life and consciousness. We know that consciousness can be painful but that is life, and we love life. So we love emotion and we love pain. Pain is life.

But he doesn't know that -- or he knows it in some abstract way but prefers not to acknowledge it. It's not your job to convince him of it or make him break out of his shell. Not now. It's your job to come to see him as perfect as he is, in spite of what he does not understand, and let him go.

So make a gift to him. Let him know that you are OK with how things turned out.

Simply telling him this may not get it across; it might sound like a cliché that you are just telling him to manipulate him. You have to show him. Spend time with him. Sit with him for a long time and watch the TV with the sound off or look out the window. Spend time with him in the knowledge that everything is OK.

Maybe you still have things you need to say to him. That's OK. Just say them. But let him respond as he will. All you need to know is that you said these things to him.

If saying them to him in person might cause undue embarrassment, put them in a letter. With the help of your therapist, perhaps you can write him a letter.

And about these things that you are conscious of never getting from your parents, that you feel you must talk about: Accept that you will never get these things. Mourn them. They are never coming.

Then when you are full of mourning and empty of desire, you can give your brother this mournfulness. That is a strange thought. What I mean is that when childhood is gone, it does not come back. If there are things we did not get, all we can do is mourn them. Perhaps you can mourn them for the both of you, and help your brother die in peace.

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