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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published August 21 2011

Bursack: Family could forgive past

Dear Carol: Many years ago, my grandmother, because of uncontrolled diabetes, had mental issues and tried to commit suicide. Two of her children thought she just wanted attention. They had a huge argument with her and walked away, seemingly forever. My mother, Grandma’s only other child, has always tried to help but has little money and lives across the country.

My husband and I care for Grandma. She now has Alzheimer’s and is deteriorating quickly. Grandma spends most of her time reliving the breakup with my aunt and uncle, who have since passed their negative feelings on to their children. She wonders what she did so wrong that her children won’t see her. I’ve tried to contact them by phone in the past, but they won’t talk to me about this. Should I try again? If so, how? – Grandma’s Girl

Dear Grandma’s Girl: Sadly, many families have estrangement issues to one degree or another, but some do eventually reunite under similar situations.

It seems strange to me that your grandmother’s attempted suicide was a breaking point for the family. My feeling is that there must have been some underlying problems before that and the suicide attempt was used as an excuse for a break rather than a time to recalibrate and perhaps heal past wounds.

If the family could realize that forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting – assuming there was some serious problem in the family’s past that you don’t know about – maybe they’d be more willing to visit at least once. Seeing their mother as frail as she now is may bring out some compassion and buried love. Getting them there is the challenge.

A newsletter addressed to all, communicating how Grandma is doing physically and mentally, that she is pained by the estrangement, and that it would be wonderful to get together while she can still recognize them, may help. You could send it by email if you have everyone’s email addresses. Otherwise, just mail the letters. Be careful not to blame anyone. Just state the facts of Grandma’s current health and her wishes.

You will then have done what you can.

You can’t change these people, so don’t blame yourself if your attempt at family healing doesn’t succeed. Maybe some of them will soften if they finally understand that Grandma’s days are numbered. I hope for their sakes as much as your grandmother’s that they do. You sound like a wonderful person, and she is very fortunate to have you. It may help you to ask a professional counselor to help guide you through this difficult time.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com.