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The silence ended, though, when an aunt died, and D.B. and her brother were the only relatives left to arrange her burial. "I remember thinking, Damn, now I have to see my brother." But the two reconciled somewhat and now talk occasionally on the phone. D.B., now 54, says if she ever needed money, she wouldn't hesitate to ask him for it. She has no money to offer him if the situation were reversed but says, "I would give him lots of time."
Often, estranged siblings are struck by a sudden yearning to reconnect. Says Bank: "Your children leave home, your friends are sick, the leaves fall off the trees, and you say, 'Well, what do I have from my past?' And for better or worse, you've got this sibling who might have been a pain in the neck but who probably knows more about what it was like to live in your childhood home than anybody else."
Yet even for siblings who wish to reconcile, breaking the ice is hard. "The difficulty most of us have is how do you pick up the telephone after so many years?" says Stewart. "People get into a pattern, and even though they're not comfortable in it, they can't imagine an alternative. Or the amount of courage and energy it would take to try to change may be beyond what they're capable of doing right now."
The ability to overlook imperfections for the sake of a relationship is one hallmark of maturity. Siblings may decide to forgive one another once they have their own children. For Mark Horton, 44, a recent falling-out he had with his eldest sister still baffles him. He's not sure what happened or why. Now that they are back in tentative contact, they still haven't talked about it. "It was kind of a Twilight Zone episode," he says. But he does hope things heal. Horton (whose sister declined to be interviewed) says she has done remarkable things for him--sending him money when he was a poor college student and then being the only one to show up at his Harvard graduation. And he wants his four children to know their aunt. "It places them in the world," he says. "They're not comets flying through space randomly; they're part of a solar system."
Reconciliation, experts say, is almost always worth an attempt. But about 40% of the families in Hargrave's clinical practice fail at reconciliation, mostly because when difficult issues get stirred up, no one is willing to take responsibility for what happened. Says Hargrave: "The person who has left just seals off again."
For Douglas Matthews, 49, a human-resources consultant, finally breaking off from his parents and three brothers three years ago brought immense relief--and not just to him. "I see it as the best thing he could have ever done for himself," says his wife Teri-Ann, "and for me and the kids."