Siblings Who Don’t Play Nice After a Mother’s Death

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Social Q’s

It has been two years since my mother died, and the Jewish holidays are around the corner again. The problem: They are stressful and not much fun without her. My siblings and I, in our 20s and 30s, do a lot of sniping, and our dad seems mostly checked out. I know that everyone is trying; no one always plays the villain. But too often, family occasions end in hurt feelings. Do you think it’s possible to repair this situation? Or should I just stop going and deal with the fallout?


Shortly after my mom died, an older relative called and said, “I’m leaving you alone now, but I’ll check back in six months.” When I asked why, she said, “Because that’s when they’re really gone.” And she was right. That’s how long it took me to get that I was (really) never going to see my mother again. And for many of us, that’s when the hard work of negotiating the world (and the rest of our family) without our lost one begins.

It sounds as if your mother, like many, played utility infielder in your clan: keeping you all connected and smoothing over squabbles. In her absence, no successor has emerged. Or maybe it’s you? Try teaming up with a dependably simpatico sibling ahead of time, and agree to encourage kind remarks and shut down snark. Your work from the sidelines may help the others realize they have to behave better without your mother around to save the day. Or it may drive everyone crazy.

Either way, you are all going through the same traumatic transition. There can be comfort in that, if you are willing to be gentle with one another. (It wouldn’t be the worst thing to say that out loud.) In rare cases, there isn’t enough love to keep us tied together. But you didn’t sketch out a hopeless case, merely one that’s in progress. Also, watch “Fleabag,” a British import that’s streaming on Amazon. The main character will dazzle you with her grief and shame and wit and her coping-by-not-coping skills.

Unskilled Labor of Love

It all started when our nanny showed up with a surprise birthday cake for our daughter’s sixth birthday party. It had a Barbie sticking out the top. Now she creates cakes for all of our children. We believe this is an act of love — and business development. (She wants to be a professional baker, and we give her a generous gift card to offset expenses.) But good design is important to me. I long for professionally designed cakes like those I see at friends’ parties. Hers are wobbly and amateurish. Still, the nanny (now, our former nanny; we parted on good terms) meets with the children and says yes to anything they propose. They love this. Should we allow it to continue?


Are you honestly asking whether you should foster a continued loving relationship between your children and their former nanny or enter into some perfectionist, competitive bake-off with your friends? (Note: Your former nanny probably isn’t going to make her fortune from expense reimbursement.)

You seem to have extra money. Why not invest some in baking classes for your former nanny? This way, we’ll know that at least one person is listening to what your children want for their birthdays.

Sound of Silence

I share a small office with a 60-year-old woman. Most of the time, we get along terrifically, chatting and laughing through the day. But every few months, she goes silent — for hours or even days — and won’t speak to me or respond to my attempts to engage her. Eventually, she comes around, a little sheepishly. I know we think highly of each other, which makes her behavior even more jarring. She acknowledges that she is an emotional person, but never mentions the silent spells. Is there a way to address them without making her defensive?


This is some seriously odd behavior. But let’s consider your office mate’s silent treatment from another angle before we decide on next steps. It is also pretty bizarre, if you think about it, to sit in a tiny room with the same person for eight hours a day. You don’t mention any work disruptions caused by the stony silence. And for almost all of your time together, you get along famously.

It sounds to me as if she gets really overwhelmed and just clicks off, like my Cuisinart coffee maker after 90 minutes. As awkward as this is for you, what’s the upside in talking about it? She already knows her behavior is strange, hence her sheepish returns. But I’m afraid that creating more social pressure may only make things worse.

If you are worried about her or think she’s depressed, ask if she needs help. But office mates aren’t required to chat. And it’s only that she’s mostly such good company that makes her bad company so glaring. I’d let this slide. I bet she’d change her behavior in a heartbeat — if she could.