Appreciate the 'nearby sibling' and the gift they are

  • Mom and dad at ages 23 and 26. Fifty-four years later, my sister Mary was the nearby sibling.

    Mom and dad at ages 23 and 26. Fifty-four years later, my sister Mary was the nearby sibling. Susan Anderson-Khleif

Posted5/29/2021 7:00 AM

One of the features of illness and death in modern society is that many families are spread out geographically. Often the aging parents live by one, but not all, of their grown children.

This comes about in many ways; the other children live far away because of their work and careers, or the parents have moved close to one of their children after they retire. And naturally they want to be by family and their grandchildren.


The upshot of all this is one of the children, or a cousin, or a dear friend, is the person close by or most responsible when serious or terminal illness hits. Most of the baby boomers have faced this situation -- the death of a parent, or dear relative or friend, often at a distance. Yet the one left close by is on the spot and thus gets most of the heavy responsibilities.

In my case it was my dear sister Mary. Mom and Dad moved close to Mary and her family when they retired. The rest of us were at a great distance and, sadly, absorbed in our own families and work. Strange, but I think the baby boom generation thought we were all going to live forever. I guess I did.

Well, my sister and I got into discussing this recently as our own birthdays were approaching, and we are getting up there in age ourselves. So we started talking about this issue of being the one close by, and the awful experience of a dying parent. But she told me an important story -- about some things Mom said in her last days.

You have to be there to know these things. But I'm grateful Mary told me.

A short time before her death, Mary was there with Mom at the hospice and she had brought a friend with her. They were sitting by Mom's bedside talking with her, and mom said to Mary, "Thank you for bringing me to Shangri-la," the perfectly beautiful paradise in the mountains in the famous novel, "Lost Horizon." Mom seemed to feel peaceful and said she was in Shangri-la. Then she turned to someone standing by her side, and said to the visiting friend, "Let me introduce you to Dr. Marvin."

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Joe Marvin was a dear friend of Mom's. Joe and his wife lived just one block away from us and Mom and Dad often played bridge with Joe and Kay, their best friends. All were about the same age. Anyway, Joe had died suddenly at least 30 years earlier. But there he was by her bedside. These things happen.

Reading about it, I understand many people are greeted by a loved one or dear friends as they are dying. A heart wrenching story for me, but so glad Mary told me. I remembered something Mom told me a long time ago. Joe had called her to wish her a happy birthday, but it was one week early. Mom said, "But my birthday is not until next week." Joe said, "I know, but I was just thinking about it so thought I'd call now." He died of heart failure the next day.

So Dr. Marvin had a premonition I guess. There are many things we do not understand. So I was struck by the fact that dear Joe Marvin came to Mom on her deathbed. Thank goodness Mary told me about it. I understood. And she had never heard that story about Joe calling early for Mom's birthday. So we try to help each other.

The point is: Try to understand what a huge responsibility the nearby sibling is carrying on their shoulders. Many of us who are at a great distance don't fully understand what is or was going on, and are not as helpful as we should be, or should have been.


Hindsight is 20/20 vision. But learn from the nearby sibling, cousin or friend. Understand more about what happened and what you may be able to do now to help. Unfortunately, we cannot go back and redo what is done, but we may be able to help others.

I asked my sister Mary, "Do you really think Mom felt that peaceful, as in Shangri-la at the end?" And Mary said, "Yes, I think so."

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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