When my father was 15, his father passed away after a long illness. The family – my grandmother, father, and uncle – sat shiva, and extended family members and friends came to pay their respects. Shortly thereafter, as my dad recalls, it seemed as though everyone disappeared and forgot about them. At first, he wondered why his immediate family became the “black sheep” of the larger one. Slowly, but surely, with no answers forthcoming, the clan lost touch. He, in turn, totally put them out of his mind and life. That was over 55 years ago.
I decided to launch an ancestry search two years ago to find those “missing” cousins. I obsessively wondered, where HAD all the cousins gone? Who were they? What had caused them to drift apart? Starting with only a handful of names, and sifting through the databases of ancestry.com, my family tree gradually grew. Throughout the process, I called, networked, emailed, connected via LinkedIn, and “friended” on Facebook dozens of blood-relatives – across generations and family branches – all for the purpose of answering my questions and satisfying my curiosity.
So what did I learn? If we were playing a round of the game show “Family Feud,” and had surveyed a hundred people for their responses to the question “What causes family members to stop speaking to each other?”, the top ten answers on the board would reveal:
- Death of a parent/inheritance disagreements
- Dislike or meddling of spouses
- Parental favoritism/sibling rivalries
- Educational differences
- Religious differences
- Political differences
- Financial/spending differences
- Personal vices (i.e. alcohol or drug abuse)
- Career choices
- A dark family secret
Unfortunately, these heavy and complex reasons existed and happened in my own family. And, knowingly or unknowingly, they were passed from generation to generation.
Family feuds are more common and enduring than we realize. Long before the Hatfields and McCoys, the bible exposed us to some doozies! The book of Genesis, for example, tells about the jealous Cain killing his brother, Abel. Then it moves to Sarah and Hagar, wife and concubine of Abraham, dueling for his affections and battling for their sons’ rightful inheritance. Later, it introduces Jacob and Esau, polar opposites competing for their father’s blessing and birthright. And, from there, Jacob’s family struggles are depicted – conflicts between his wives and between his sons – reading like a soap opera that is complete with rivalries, deceptions, jealousies, and lies. In the majority of these scenarios, conflict resolutions come in the form of the adversaries going separate ways.
I consulted my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lou Feldstein, and asked why the first book of the bible would share so many examples of flawed people and families right from the get-go. He simply replied, “If these ‘holy’ families can be so dysfunctional, imagine what our dysfunctional families can achieve.” The patriarchs and matriarchs, with their very human imperfections, suffered from the same relationships challenges that we face today. But, these trials can be resolved and overcome.
Eighteen months ago, in Boston, my father and I pulled together an impromptu “reunion” of over 30 first and second cousins, between the ages of 60 and 80; most of whom had not seen each other in more than half a century. This past Sunday, he and my mother hosted 5 of his first cousins with spouses in Florida. Between these events, communications between relatives have been ongoing, steady, and positive; new relationships are being formed, and genuine love and affection have bloomed.
My father’s 15-year-old self is gone. His indifference has vanished. His hurts and scars of resentment have healed. His 55-plus years of being disconnected from his family is over. His father, my grandfather, is smiling down upon us and resting in peace.