by Caroline Leavitt
You can love someone even if you don’t want them in your life anymore.
- This is my deeply personal view of how to heal when a sibling cuts you off.
- Sometimes estrangement can be a blessing for both you and the person who estranged you.
- How I learned that you can still love someone even while you are estranged.
Every time the phone rings, something perks inside of me. Every text message or email holds out hope that it might be her, that finally, somehow, things might work out. But it’s been five years since my older sister estranged herself from me, three years since the screamingly vicious all-caps responses from her stopped.
Estrangement can make you feel shudderingly incomplete.
And I’m here to tell you, it is sometimes better that way.
I’ve written before about my older sister’s estrangement, how we grew up so close that we might as well have been velcroed together. My sister was the beautiful one, a showstopper. The boys I yearned for came to our door to invite her to parties. Photographers stopped her on the Boston streets to snap her photo. She was the one who led me on the wild adventures that I, a shy little wren back then, craved. I was always bathing in her light, hoping to get even a little of her sparkle.
Then, when she hit her twenties, she married young, had babies young, moved to a horror of a town with a horror of a husband, and her life began to collapse. She blamed me for it. I had stolen her life, she said. I was the one who got a writing career, a happy marriage, a loving child. And the worst crime of all to her was that I had formed a close relationship with her daughter.
While my mother was alive, she acted as a buffer. It was my mother who insisted that my sister attend my wedding, that she come to the hospital when I was then dying of a mysterious blood disease. Something was clearly wrong, but the more I tried to help my sibling, the worse I made things until my sister cut me off with the words: I hope you die in the same pain you cause me.
At first, when all contact stopped, I felt bereft. I saw her everywhere. In a bookshop, excitedly pulling down books to share with me. When I was writing, I remembered how we’d tear apart plots, read the same books, even write together. My mother used to tell us both that nothing was more important than family, that no matter what someone did to you, how they hurt you, you had to accept it. But did you?
I turned to my writer friends, sobbing out what had happened. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only one with an estrangement issue. My friend Jane hadn’t spoken to or seen her sister for a decade, but she had never loved her sister the way I did mine. My friend Cleo said her sister vanished from her life when she was a teen, after abusing her and her pets. “It’s better that way,” she said. “She doesn’t see me, so she doesn’t feel the need to torment me.”
I am beginning to put myself back together after the estrangement.
I hear more stories. Siblings who aren’t close at all, who are so totally different, not separated by any kind of mental disturbance, but by choice. “You don’t have to keep reaching out,” Jane tells me. And so, experimentally, I don’t. And then it happens: I notice the peace, the lack of drama. I’m no longer stiffening when my cell rings. I no longer get presents I sent returned to me, scissored up. I surround myself with my husband, my son, my friends. And I get attached to my cousins, “mean girls’ when I was growing up, who all warmly invited me into their fold, embracing me as if they had never left. I get more attached to my sister’s daughter’s brood. Family! I have family! I began to write about estrangements in my novel Days of Wonder.
A therapist told me once that I had two sisters. “One that you grew up with and adore, and the one now who is angry and tormented and who cruelly attacks you. You can always love the version of the first sister, who was wonderful to you. But you don’t have to love the second sister. Instead, you can mourn her and move on, cherishing what was. ”
And so, I do. I realize that just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you have to have them in your life if they make your life difficult and painful. Just because you yearn to see and talk with them doesn’t mean that you need to, especially if they cannot listen, if they can only attack. And so I do what writer Rick Moody, once suggested to me: I love her hard—the best versions of her. But from a safe distance.
Caroline Leavitt’s new novel Days of Wonder, which deals with estrangements, will be published April 23, 2024, from Algonquin Books/Hatchette.