Harbaugh Brothers: A Healthy Sibling Rivalry?

How to nurture healthy sibling relationships.

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Although that may be the ideal, it isn't always the case. And that's OK, according to Safer. "I think we have fantasies about the Hallmark family, and one of the points I make is that brotherhood and sisterhood must be earned," she says. "Sometimes we need psychological brothers and sisters, not biological ones." But she and others urge those grappling with sibling strife to seek to repair the relationship, since one can still take comfort in having tried to make amends.

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"Don't wait for him to get cancer," Safer says. First, admit that the distance between you stems not from geography or her spouse or his politics but from a deeper chasm, which likely started in childhood, she says. And then, put yourself in your sibling's position. "Look at how they see you, and when you do that, you will find that it's not always so very flattering."

In Safer's case, she was the favored child, excelling in school, while her older brother Steven struggled academically and socially. He put on weight, became bullied as a result, and ultimately developed diabetes, which robbed him of both his legs. He died at 64.

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The two were civil, but separate, says Safer, now 65, who wrote about her experience in The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. When she realized, in her 50s, that the relationship was more important than she thought ("It takes a long time for people to figure out," she says), she tried to reconnect and found a momentary openness that didn't last.

Two years before he passed, she got a phone call from an emergency room in Cincinnati, where they grew up and he still lived. As the next of kin, she was asked whether to provide her brother, who arrived there unconscious, with a pacemaker. She didn't know what he wanted—since she didn't know him—but agreed and asked to speak with him afterward so that, at the very least, she could understand his health-care wishes going forward. He wasn't interested.

For her part, Jeanne Safer didn't mourn her brother's death until years later, when listening to jazz music triggered an outpouring of grief. Her brother was a jazz musician, she explains, and she is a singer. "We never played music together."

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