Carolyn Hax: Advice

Open brother’s gift: It might be amends

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I just received a package that’s likely to be a Christmas gift from my brother and sister-in-law. They have been harshly critical of me over the past two years when I was doing the lion’s share of long-distance care for Mom. Very little assistance from them, but scathing insults and criticism.

I don’t want their gift and don’t plan to send them one. Should I put it back in the mail marked “Return to sender”? I don’t really feel like pretending to be friendly.

Bridge Burned

What would it take for any friendliness from you to be genuine?

“Bridge Burned” suggests there’s nothing they could do or say to repair the damage. If that’s true, then please tell them exactly so – after opening the package to see its message.

A refused package blinds you both: You can’t see what they’ve sent or why, and they can’t see what you mean by your refusal. Receiving their message and giving an unequivocal response is preferable to siccing silence on them, such a blunt and cowardly instrument.

That’s just the best way to handle a worst-case outcome, though – and ideally you’ll look for a best-case alternative here.

What your brother and sister-in-law did was terrible, I won’t argue otherwise. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to dump all the work on someone else and then judge that work to be lacking.

But what if they eventually came around to seeing that themselves? What if they took full responsibility, and admitted … say, allowing their fears to affect their judgment? Fear could certainly explain both their not getting as involved as your mother needed them to be, and their meddling in her care. What if they admitted fully to taking their stress out on you? What if they offered amends?

That’s a best-case scenario that isn’t beyond imagination. You know this couple, of course, where I can’t, and maybe between them they haven’t apologized for anything in their lives. Maybe it’ll be a routine gift (which you can then donate).

But assuming for the sake of argument they have some capacity to own up to their frailties: This is your brother. He holds your memories in his, and vice versa. You both deserve for him to have a chance to make this right, and if an attempt is in the package, you don’t write “return to sender” on that.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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