‘My sister’s attitude from the start of her cancer diagnosis was toxic’

Tell Me About It: ‘The family dynamics have always been fractured and are now at an all-time low’


This time last year my best friend passed away from liver cancer. The same week, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My sister lives abroad and she had access to the best treatment possible. I offered her support as best I could from Ireland. I soon realised my grief was bigger than I thought. I tried to explain this to her, but I was rejected for whatever reasons. At this time, she asked my parents, both in their 70s, to come and stay with her. They were reluctant to go due to ill health, which ended up with our father having a heart attack within a month or two.

She took this as an outright rejection by my parents and has not spoken to them since. The family dynamics have always been fractured and are now at an all-time low. Her attitude from the start of her diagnosis was toxic, she felt we were talking behind her back. She has leaned on one of my brothers, but I don’t have the best of relationships with him as I find him extremely toxic and narcissistic.

I have said to myself will this suffering, and my feelings, matter in five years – probably not. So, I have come to the conclusion to let it go as life is too short.


It sounds as though everyone in your family is feeling vulnerable, but that the ways of expressing it are such that it is not heard or understood. Think of how a child or young person can have a bad day at school and then comes home and kicks someone in the shins or slams their bedroom door; what they most want is to be sought out, understood for their hurt and treated with care and concern. It seems that members of your family reach out, but then quickly retreat into feelings of rejection and anger when the help does not arrive in the form they expected.

This means there is lots of criticism and pain, hurting everyone in the ensuing responses. You are planning to follow this pattern, that is to cut yourself off from your sister and brother. While this may produce some short-term relief for you, it will be of little help to your family, and you may well regret it in the future.

The rejection response comes from others not behaving, or responding, in ways that we want. It leads to suffering for us in the form of grief, pain or anger. We continue to feel these negative emotions until the other person changes, but as we know people rarely change as a result of criticism. In other words, we put those people we find difficult in charge of our emotional lives and imagine that they are making us feel this way, so we become stuck in a never-ending cycle of frustration and despair. Instead, ask anyone the question of: who is in charge of how we feel? The answer comes back quickly, we are ourselves responsible for how we feel.

The way forward here is to accept fully what is in front of us – your sister is feeling abandoned and angry, your brother struggles with empathy, your parents feel vulnerable and hurt, and you feel frustrated and at the end of your rope.

Acceptance is key to clearing your own painful responses and to allowing you access to your intelligence and capacity for good judgment.

On this basis, instead of focusing on what everyone else is not doing, is it possible to look at needs? Your parents need care and probably need the whole family involved in this; your brother needs to learn that empathy is the key to connection and your sister needs to deal with her insecurity and fear that she is not loved enough. Your own needs also require attention and perhaps your family’s history of fracture has leaked into your ways of dealing with the world. That you all care about each other is clear, as it is impossible to feel so strongly if there was no emotion in the family. So, before you try to address the needs of others in the family, it might be good for you to map your own responses in terms of the family’s legacy and traditions.

This can be done by doing a family genogram in the tradition of family therapy (look it up online or book some sessions with a family therapist, familytherapy.com) and you may begin to see how themes emerge and play out in each generation and how much we are influenced by the family story. This may allow some self-compassion and choice of response and it may also allow you to gain some understanding of your siblings and parents’ way of being in the world. This understanding may then offer you more options in your dealings with them and at the very least, less suffering for you.

It is not your responsibility to meet the needs of all your family, but if you demonstrate to them your capacity to remain involved, without cutting people off or drowning in frustration, you may open a way forward that allows some healing and connection that can only benefit all of you.