Dear Carolyn: Sibling D is going through some mental health and substance abuse challenges and is angry at my parents for their failures while we were growing up. We’ve discussed it, and I sympathize – I went through a long period of anger myself – but I’ve gotten over it without ever directly discussing it with them.
D is demanding an apology, and seems to believe that without one it will be impossible to get healthy.
I don’t want to excuse or ignore my parents’ failures, but demanding an apology under these circumstances feels like emotional blackmail. I have no reason to believe that my parents are the cause of D’s problems or that it would make a difference if they apologized. Selfishly, I have no interest in revisiting my anger or in reopening what I thought was a closed issue for me.
D needs my support and I can’t avoid my parents, so this will come up again. Any suggestions for how to handle it?
A: Ask him why, if he’s so unhappy with your parents’ handling of his past, he wants to put his whole future in their hands, too?
Ideally he’ll understand this without explanation, but if he doesn’t:
Tell him you’ll stipulate to the errors your parents made. Even allow, for the sake of argument, that your parents’ mistakes back then are directly responsible for his challenges now.
Agree that sincere apologies can be transformative.
Then explain the “but.” By demanding one of your parents – and by putting his life or recovery or whatever else on hold till he gets it – he gives them control over his life. Again. And what if they died tomorrow; no health for him, ever?
I realize how hard it is to choose health when feeling wronged, with that awful sense you’re letting the wrongdoers out of jail free. Your brother likely feels ready to wait in perpetuity for your parents to do their share of suffering.
Don’t negate that feeling. Instead, try describing that choice in non-emotionally charged terms: He’s waiting to be fed ambrosia – the apology – though he has no say in when he gets it, if ever. Meanwhile, there are bran flakes that he can serve himself at any time – as in, a decision to accept what he has and make the most of his life.
Almost everyone holds out for the ambrosia at least once, at least for a while, understandably.
You can’t make him stop waiting any more than he can make your parents apologize, but you can understand. And as the brother who chose the bran, you can also attest to how much better you feel since you did.
Reach out to family
Dear Carolyn: I have a former client who I have just learned has midstage Alzheimer’s. I worked for him and his extended family for over 20 years. We parted on friendly terms. I would love to see him and his family again, but I don’t want to be an added burden on his wife. What should I do?
A: Send the wife a note or, even better given the ease of responding, an email. Such low-obligation contact is an emotional lifesaver for people dealing with a major illness. Plus, her response will likely tell you whether a visit would be a blessing or a chore.