Dear Readers Among the most emotionally wrenching relationship issues, one deserves far more attention.
It involves entrenched anger, guilt, aching loneliness, and psychic pain. Too often, it’s also a family secret based on personal shame.
“Sibling estrangement” is its broad label, but it’s not about a squabble or distancing.
The author of a new, deeply informative book about what actually happens in more cases than ever before, and revealed so personally, was estranged from her two-plus years-older brother Scott for 40 years!
Fern Schumer Chapman, author and journalist, tells their story in Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation.
She found studies about sibling estrangement and interviewed social scientists on the topic.
It starts at home, she learned from a survey she conducted with 100 estranged siblings, using their voices in the book.
Their families hit almost every risk button for pushing siblings apart: Family trauma, parental favouritism, sibling jealousy, poor communication skills, certain family values/choices/political differences, alcoholism, other addictions, mental issues, money, inheritance, elder care, narcissistic parent/sibling.
Bingo! Their mother experienced trauma/terror as a youngster, abruptly separated from her parents from Nazi Germany by a US-based operation later called “The One Thousand Children,” during the Holocaust. She felt forever estranged, her family lost to murder.
Their now deceased father? A narcissist, say both siblings.
Scott Schumer: “Everything had to be his way, he scared the hell out of me. It was a chaotic, abusive family.”
Fern Schumer Chapman: “There was a lot of scapegoating. He’d sometimes not talk to me for months. But I fought back.
The siblings, both married with children, lived half an hour away from each other, never in contact. But their mother’s plea to her daughter ten years ago, brought Fern to the first outreach, inwardly hoping her brother wouldn’t answer.
Scott describes being “in a bad place” then, and a “functional alcoholic” who drank “to dull everything...” Something would anger him and he’d shut his sister out. He was clinically depressed and both were later diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
When she finally forced herself to phone, neither knew what to say, until his sister offered, “I can help you.” He responded, “I’m up for anything.”
Fern found a psychiatrist for them for a few sessions, then Scott, who says he’d “heard everything before,” decided to stop drinking, on his own, now sober for seven years. They started talking regularly.
From responses of other estranged siblings, the author learned that one-third of those surveyed have either estranged or apathetic relationships. “There’s so much grief involved. You’ve lost someone, but they’re still walking the earth.”
Her brother says he’s very remorseful that their children, first cousins, didn’t have a chance to get to know each other. Now, “Fern and I talk at least once weekly, meet for coffee, linger over breakfast.”
From the responses she’s received since her book was published last year: “A lot of people don’t even know why they were cut off. That’s the worst. They keep ruminating on possible reasons...”
She notes that, “If they try to reconnect with siblings, it needs an ongoing process of hearing each other’s stories.” And a couple of therapy sessions, help create the parameters involved in getting started.
The message to readers from their own remarkably successful journey, come touchingly from Scott, now approaching 70:
“Never give up, keep trying to reconcile. It took us many years, but I’m so happy to have my sister back.” As proof, she had her brother write the book’s “afterword,” described by readers as “gripping” and “powerful.”
FEEDBACK Regarding your response to "Friend Who Stole" (April 19, 2022):
Reader #1 - “You’re spot on. Many little unfair events happened to most of us years ago and we continue to still feel cheated.
“The perspective of having empathy for the other person's motivations in this case should allow positive closure for the writer to put this in the past where it belongs. Hopefully the friend who stole overcame their trauma at some point.”
Reader #2 – “Her “friend” didn’t feel safe and secure with her, or she wouldn’t have stolen from her. My daughter attended classes with a wealthy girl. She didn’t steal from my daughter but did from those she resented, perceived to be better or of whom she was jealous.
“When our daughter found out, she made friends with her because she had an innate understanding this person was suffering. The stealing ended shortly after they became friends.”
Tip of the day:
Estranged siblings can reconnect, by surmounting divisive/risky family influences.