Sibling relationships are some of the longest-lasting ties you will have in life. Although having a sibling can be a struggle at times, experts found that navigating parental conflict, such as a divorce, or the death of a parent can actually reinforce the strength of sibling relationships. This was certainly the case for Jim Ryan when his mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
The youngest of five children, Jim says that he and his siblings came together as a group of caregivers in the six-month period between his mother’s diagnosis and her death. “We never fought,” says Jim. “If anything, the experience brought us all closer together.”
Adult Siblings Caring for a Parent With Cancer
“My mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor back in 2000,” Jim says. “I had just finished my MBA and come back from a celebratory vacation in Rome, and I wanted to take my mom to see the movie ‘Gladiator.’ We knew something was wrong after my sister called her to ask how the movie was and my mom couldn’t remember which movie we had gone to see.”
At that time, Jim lived close to his mother in Florida and arranged to take her to the doctor. Her brain scans showed that she had glioblastoma, the same type of brain cancer that Senator John McCain was recently diagnosed with (and that claimed the lives of Beau Biden and Ted Kennedy). Doctors suggested an operation, and after the surgery, Jim’s mother lost most of her capacity for speaking, as the doctors had to remove the part of the brain that regulates speech.
After the surgery, Jim and his siblings arranged to move their mother back to Buffalo, where they were all raised, to live with his older sister, Karen, who was a registered nurse. In addition to Karen’s medical background, she had the most flexible work and life schedule out of all the siblings, so everyone whole-heartedly supported the decision.
Caregiving and Sibling Relationships
Jim still gets emotional talking about the experience of caring for and losing his mother, but is proud of the fact that it helped bring him and his siblings closer together. With so many of them scattered across the East Coast, the siblings rarely got together prior to their mother’s death save for weddings and funerals. The experience of losing their mother inspired the siblings to commit to annual family vacations so they could get together to spend quality time and make new memories.
Although the difficult task of caring for their mother after a devastating cancer diagnosis was able to bring the siblings closer together, Jim acknowledges that not all families can operate in that way. Both in his personal and professional lives, Jim has witnessed how the death of a loved one can tear siblings apart.
“Everyone handles and processes emotions differently, and it can be hard to focus on the bigger picture,” says Jim. “But it’s important to remember that it’s not actually about you. You have to think about what your mom or dad would want and do what’s necessary to honor them. You have to get past your differences for them.”
Jim points out that there’s less to gain when fighting over things or money, as maintaining healthy relationships with your siblings can be more rewarding in the long term.
Paying It Forward – Giving Family Caregivers a Helping Hand
For years, both before and after his mother’s death, Jim worked for IBM and traveled a lot for work. When he finally decided that it was time to settle down and he came across the opportunity to open a Right at Home office in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he immediately thought of his experience with his mother.
“The challenges we faced in caring for our mom come up all the time in the business now,” says Jim. “We were lucky that my sister could take so much time off of work to care for our mom, but not every family has that luxury. It makes me so happy to know that we can be there for families who are struggling to take care of loved ones.”
Every day, Jim goes to sleep at night loving the work that he is doing and feeling as though he is honoring the memory of his mother, who was a nurse for 30 years, by helping those in need during difficult times in their lives.