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Carolyn Hax: ‘Good sister’ cuts off half-siblings after mom’s death

(Nick Galifianakis/Illustration for The Washington Post)
3 min

Dear Carolyn: My half sister completely removed herself from the family after our mother died. She just ghosted us. I know she did not have a good relationship with my dad, who was at loggerheads with her since we were children, but after she became an adult, they seemed to have had a truce.

I realize now she was just biding her time until my mom died, and has no intention of being close to us again.

It kind of sucks because she was a good sister to us before she went away. And it hurts to know that, to her, it was worth it to put up with my dad for our mother’s sake, but not for our sake. She just dumped us. How do I move on from that, if I haven’t even had the chance to talk to her about it?

— Hurt

Hurt: What you feel is absolutely valid, and I’m sorry. You’ve lost a mom and a sister at once.

What you “realize now,” however, might not be true.

It is possible, of course, that you're right about your sister end-to-end: that your dad and she had a truce; that she was just biding her time; that she has no intention of being close to you again; that she was willing to put up with your dad for your mom's sake; that she is unwilling to do the same for yours.

But you say yourself at the end that you haven't gotten any of this from your sister directly. She left blanks, and everything here represents your effort to fill them in.

That kind of speculation — as it always does — leaves room for there to be a completely different explanation.

And you know the expression to encourage doctors to consider common explanations first — “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras”? Well, I suspect every single family is a herd of zebras.

So there might be layers upon layers to her struggle with your dad, for example. Or secrets. Or misunderstandings.

There might be more to her grief over your mom.

Your sister might have complicated reasons for not being in touch with you. Leading, possibly, to one incredibly simple one: that she doesn't know what to say. I can't tell you how many letters I've received over the years from people who have parted with loved ones that way. Not having the words + months/years + shame = how do I face this person now?

So you may be taking as a deep personal insult something that isn't directly about you at all.

Bringing us back to the beginning, here's what you do know for sure: Your sister has not been in touch, and you miss her.

You miss her. Strip everything away but that essential truth.

Then, choose your next actions accordingly.

There are many ways to deal with people who have fallen out of touch: Give them time and space to figure things out (you don’t say how long ago this all happened), or inquire respectfully whether you’ve done something to offend them, or express concern for their well-being, or just send up an “I miss you!” flare for them to respond to as they see fit.

Obviously your speculation is informed by years of context, so this exercise might seem absurd. But it can still be useful for rooting out assumptions, which risk adding misunderstandings and miscommunications to a situation that is already complicated, highly emotional and possibly still in flux.

Love, courage, patience and an open mind can’t guarantee a good outcome, but they’re the most useful tools you’ve got.