Wikimedia Commons | LJP assistant
Q. My sister and I have had a rocky relationship for much of our lives, yet we seem to be drawing closer now that my husband has died. Is this unusual?
According to family therapist Karen Gail Lewis, Ed.D., 80 percent of Americans have a sibling, and 65 percent of siblings get closer as they get older.
"Siblings who had a good relationship reach out to each other when a spouse dies. They may turn to children or friends to take them to the doctor, but they go to a sister or brother for emotional connection," says Lewis, author of the e-book Siblings: Ghosts That Haunt Your Life and Love.
At a time of grief, there's the feeling, "This is my first family." Siblings fill in one another's memory gaps. It's, "What were you doing when Dad had his heart attack?"
Gender isn't important. Many brothers and sisters move near each other after being widowed. Some siblings decide to live together. Even if one of the siblings has a child or children close by – or if both have children near to them – they understand that children can move around and have lives of their own.
Lewis explains that there's an hourglass pattern of closeness in our lives. Part of adolescence is turning away from family toward friends. Later, when we get caught up in children and careers, we no longer focus our primary energy on family of origin. As we age, however, we have space to ponder, "Who really knows me?"
I found that my siblings and I grew closer together after my husband's death. They stepped up to the plate when I needed them, as did certain in-laws. My husband and I shared many interests and enjoyed a very active couples' social life. His loss left an enormous void that needed to be filled. And I had the time to explore (and sometimes reconfigure) other relationships.
What if you don't have a good relationship with your sibling?
"You can get there," says Lewis, "but you have to work at it. Very few siblings are cut off in old age."
That doesn't mean they don't fight, however. She recalls two widows, one who had children and one who was childless.
"They fought right up to their 90s," Lewis says. "A niece called me and asked, 'Can you help?'
"It turned out that arguing was their connection," Lewis says. "It brought them back to their childhood and was a way to hold on to each other – a bonding of sorts."