My sister, Miriam, and I have been very close most of our lives. We’re not just sisters, but really good friends. Miriam is two years older than I am, and we seem to have gone down the same path for as long as I can remember: she led the way and I followed close behind. We got married within a few years of each other and our husbands also got along nicely, we both have four children — who are relatively close in age — and we both moved to the same neighborhood.
Over the years, we each experienced some hiccups, but nothing too extraordinary. A couple of years ago, however, Miriam started having to deal with some enormous hardships. First, her oldest son began having issues and was kicked out of his school. He began to spiral downwards and caused an enormous amount of stress at home. Then Miriam’s husband lost his job. No one saw that coming. He had always been very successful, and he went from being a confident individual to someone who is unsure of himself. He became moody and hard to be around.
And if that were not enough, Miriam started experiencing problems with her back. Some days it was so bad that she could barely get out of bed in the morning. For someone who was always very active, this became a game-changer for her. Their lives have become such a disaster!
I feel so sorry for Miriam and her family and I have been trying to figure out what to do to help. I have no idea what kind of financial cushion they have and whether or not they will be able to support themselves until Miriam’s husband finds a new job. Though we are not wealthy people, I’ve asked Miriam if she needs to borrow money from us to tide them over for now. She flatly refused.
It seems that whatever I offer her or whatever I say is the wrong thing. If I tell her that I feel so bad for her, she tells me to stop being so dramatic. If I try to innocently buy stuff for her — like when I go to Costco and buy large bundles of stuff and tell her that I don’t have room for all of it — she tells me she doesn’t need anything I’ve bought. Who doesn’t need extra paper towels or tissues?
I just have no idea what I’m supposed to say or do at this point. I miss our friendship, which now feels strained and distant. Miriam was always the older, wiser sister that I looked up to and admired. Now I feel like she’s lost her footing and I don’t know how to relate to her anymore. Though I believe that Miriam and her husband will get back on track, hopefully sooner rather than later, I worry that when that time comes, she’ll blame me for not being there for her in the right way. What am I missing here? What is it that I should be doing or saying during this time of crisis for her? I need some direction.
Off the Mark
Dear Off the Mark,
Miriam and her family are certainly experiencing some awful events in their lives, events that suddenly put your two families on different playing fields. While for most of your lives you were moving along in similar fashions, kind of neck and neck regarding your accomplishments and successes, you’ve pulled ahead, so to speak, as Miriam has gotten tangled up in unforeseen and distressing events. Miriam went from being the pioneering older sister, leading the way for you as you trailed closely behind, to someone who is lost and no doubt frightened.
Reading your letter, I am struck by your feelings of pity for Miriam. I wonder whether this is something that you consistently convey to her and if it’s something that is intolerable for Miriam to experience. Of course, you have sympathy for her and her family, and perhaps even empathy, though you’ve never really walked in her shoes — but pity is a whole other story and probably something that makes Miriam bristle. No matter how upset anyone is over the facts of their lives, feeling pitied makes one feel pitiful, which is as low as it gets. This is especially true when you’re an older sister who always had it together and is expected to lead the way. To go from a place of confidence to one of being pitied is horrible.
I think you need to check your tone and words when you’re around Miriam. Probably what she needs most from you is your old self — the person who felt equal to her and on the same track. Let it be known that you’re there for her in any way that she needs, but, after that, continue relating to her in the same way that you once did. You needn’t be a constant reminder of her present difficulties, possibly showing up with a sad look on your face and a “tsk” in your voice. Show up with joy, love, and friendship. People get through or learn to live with challenges, and there is no reason why your relationship needs to take on different proportions.
Still, don’t be afraid to ask her directly if there is anything you can do for her. But ask in an honest, clear, practical way. A sad face or tears never really helped anyone. Practical solutions might. Maybe you and your husband and children can get closer to her son, inviting him for Shabbos, outings, etc., giving the family a respite from the tension that exists in their home. If you think of some constructive ideas, put them out there in a straightforward, respectful way. Remember, no one died, G-d forbid, and so no one needs to be mourning. Though I’m sure you know that you and Miriam are still equals, make sure that your behavior and remarks convey that belief. This is no time for a pity party.
Finally, if Miriam seems moody or snappy with you at times, don’t take it personally. She’s got a lot on her mind and it’s understandable that she feels close enough to you to let her guard down around you and emote. Give her ample room to feel safe expressing her concerns, fears, and maybe even anger in front of you. I’m sure it’s hard for you to tolerate seeing her in pain, but tolerate it you must — with your chin up and a caring attitude rather than a sorrowful one.
Life happens — circumstances change and challenges emerge. But the special bond that you and Miriam have enjoyed all your lives doesn’t have to change. You are still equals, friends, and, of course, devoted sisters. Never lose sight of that.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.