While working on The Art of Dying, I discovered an interesting phenomenon: tensions among family members seemed to constantly erupt. Many families worked things through and became stronger in the process. Not all did, however. Importantly, these conflicts made an already difficult job even more so. The work of dying is complicated enough, without the mess of family squabbles. And these distractions make it more difficult to be intentional and faithful as people near the end of life.
It seemed to me that every time I have encountered this the family thought it was going through this difficulty for the first time. I added a passage to The Art of Dying to help people dealing with these tensions. A new book explains why these family tensions arise and how to deal with them.
Francine Russo is author of They’re Your Parents, Too!: How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. I wouldn’t write about quite like that title suggests, but Russo has interesting points in this interview with the Vancouver Sun. “many psychological, economical and medical movements have all occurred at the same time. The average person is living 30 years longer than a century ago. Medical science has created a situation where people can live for 10, 15, 20 years with chronic ailments with which they cannot function independently. Because of the revolutions in the boomer age group … there are not available caregivers in the family.”
What that means, essentially, is that more women—the traditional caregiver—work outside the home. Families are smaller, so caregiving responsibilities land more heavily on fewer people. And families are more spread out.
The two main conflicts, Russo says, are when “one sibling … does all the caregiving and is angry at the other because they don’t do their ‘fair share.’ The other situation is where one sibling is insisting on doing it all and the other says, ‘She won’t let me help.’ “ I would add a third category, that of the out-of-state sibling. They tend to be less involved and more eager for aggressive use of medicine, often in the hopes of delaying death in order to make up for their absence. There seems to be a sense of guilt involved here too.
Russo offers a number of “tips” on avoiding conflict, but as I write, it all boils down to being present. Simply being around the family, not necessarily doing anything, seems to be the most important thing for siblings to do.