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“Dealing with Death in a Family”

The Inner Bottom Line ®
A Column on Personal Choices & Ethical Dilemmas by Olive Gallagher

Dear Olive,
I was so frustrated I couldn’t take your class this month on Living and Dying, so thank you so much for gentleness and kind words you offered when we met. It really helped. My dilemma is I’m taking care of my dad who’s 93 and failing. Being the oldest, I’ve always had to be the grownup while my brother, Joe, still has a perpetual case of adolescence at 51. With Mom gone and Dad ill, I find myself doing it all. The hard decisions that Dad didn’t execute before are proving to be the toughest, and whenever I reach out to Joe to help me wrestle with them, he never has time and yet he’s the first to object about my decisions. Once Dad’s gone, the only family I’ll have is Joe, but at this point, whatever affections I had are buried under growing anger and resentment. Talk is cheap. I think it’s actions that count. I was hoping you could offer a few thoughts to make this easier.

Dear CL.
Accepting the loss of a loved one and supporting them to the end of that journey is one of the toughest yet most touching challenges any of us ever face. Letting go is never easy when the heart’s engaged. And nothing makes the angst more painful or causes us to lose our tempers more easily than a close family member who makes everything more difficult than it already is. While I sense you already know Joe’s behavior is all about him and his “stuff”, it’s still spilling over and impacting your ability to manage a heavy load, so perhaps that would be a good place to start making choices and clarifying what really matters.

Death tends to bring out the best and the worst in people. Some rise to the moment and find a sense of strength, clarity and dignity, while others dissolve into the worst version of their infantile, childish self. Greed, tantrums, fights, abusive behavior, withdrawal, spitefulness, erratic patterns, recriminations, etc. The list is infinite and always full of surprises.

Since you aren’t going to change Joe, taking care of you right now is the priority. Choosing to do what matters most and letting other things slide to second are smart ways to utilize your energy and focus most effectively with a minimum of emotional collateral damage. There will be time enough down the road for you and Joe to find your way to one another, and hopefully he’ll be able to pull his head out of his butt long enough to participate in some support and participation in losing Dad so that he won’t have to live with irresolvable guilt and regret for the unfinished things he’ll never be able to share and express to Dad or you.

Since you’re the one who always helped “fix” things up until now, Joe may also be mindlessly directing his anger and possibly a sense of helplessness he may be feeling at losing his father at you. After all, you’ve handled things so well in the past, why can’t you make everything all right now?

There’s no rulebook, no guideline, for dealing with death and dying within a family. It becomes a unique, deeply personal and rending experience no matter how close or distant family members have been. During these emotional times of elemental passage, when we are called upon to dig down deep for clarity and compassion, we often discover remarkable strength and character we never realized we possessed. My thoughts will be with you during this time.

The Inner Bottom Line column now runs in first use on Tuesdays in and in print in The Oregonian Saturday edition.

Hard cover, Kindle and audio versions of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life™, are now available on

You can submit your questions and ethical dilemmas or book consulting appointments and private and group coaching sessions with Olive at 503-908-7842 or

Olive Gallagher, a life coach, ethicist, and national columnist has a private practice in Lake Oswego, OR.

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