The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Sister is distant after father’s unexpected death

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Two months ago, my dad died. He was young, and it was shocking and unexpected for everyone. I live close to my mom, and my sisters are in other states. However, through our entire lives, we have always had close, loving relationships, separate from my parents.

Since my dad’s death, it feels as if my youngest sister is avoiding us, especially me. She doesn’t want to talk about the death and avoids phone calls, texts and communication with my kids. I feel very hurt by this. She is my best friend. I know I need to give her space, but I am terrified we will never get back to where we were. When I try to talk to her about it, she is avoidant and brushes me off.

Is there anything I can do? It’s making me feel even more lost and isolated.

— Distant

Distant: I am so sorry, for the twin agonies.

The best thing you can do, from the sounds of it, is think long term. Your youngest sister is struggling, and she’s handling it her way — or mishandling, as the case may be, but that’s her prerogative. It’s not the way you want her to handle it, so you have tried to steer her in your direction, which was fine for what it was. But when it became clear she didn’t welcome your efforts, then was your cue to change your approach.

Giving her space is one option. Try pulling back a little from your usual contact, or asking her whether she wants that. Offer to talk about anything but your dad; it may seem weird or even disrespectful to his memory, but it would be very respectful of your sister’s preference to process her feelings outside her relationships with the rest of her family.

You can also let go of the “get back to where we were” standard. An unexpected, highly emotional loss changes things. It’s normal for people who have been through a devastating loss to see their lives as “before” and “after.” So it might be healthy (for both of you) if you thought in terms of building a new, “after” relationship with your sis, maybe even a closer one, when she’s ready. It’s probably too soon to conceive of that now, but as you heal, do start to think in terms of forming a new bond as the different people you both have become.

Readers’ thoughts:

· Relationships change in a multitude of ways over time; even happy developments, such as weddings or births, can effect lasting changes in your existing relationships. There can be gains (new beings in your life), but also losses — of the relationships you had before with others, and even with yourself. Relationships are never static, and change can bring feelings of grief and loss for what was before, but we must go on nonetheless. You and your sister cannot go back, but you can go forward (I hope) through happier times in the future. I am so very sorry for your loss.

· My sister told me a few weeks after our sibling’s death that she couldn’t manage anyone else’s grief at that time. The sister might feel she has to comfort Distant in a way she just cannot at this time.

· My sister and I have a mismatch in how we process things. I feel 1,000 percent better if I talk it out. My sister disappears.