In honor of the patron saints of siblings, let me tell you a story that captures one of the aspects of sibling relationships that I most treasure.
A couple of years ago, one of my brothers married an Indian woman, and as is the custom in Indian weddings, my parents and the closest relatives of my sister-in-law were very involved in the ceremony. They sat up front with the couple and played a large role in the various wedding rituals, marking in an overt way the melding of not just two individuals, but two families: two ways of living, two troves of stories, two series of relationships. Several of the rituals involved the sprinkling of water, and the officiant came prepared with paper towels for drying hands and faces. One of my favorite moments of the entire wedding occurred when, as my mom dried her hands and folded the paper towel she had used, my youngest brother (not the one getting married) leaned over and whispered in my ear “Mom’s going to save that.”
He was 100% right; my mom’s commitment to reducing waste is rivaled only by her siblings (once, my uncle collected garbage bags full of undamaged toilet paper after his house had been TP’s by a group of teens to be used by the family) and she could never throw away a barely dampened paper towel.
I stifled a laugh in the moment, but I’ve gone on to clearly remember that moment. It’s sort of an odd memory to keep close to my heart, and yet, it makes sense to me that I do, and here is my speculation as to why: my brother noticed and named what was already implicitly going through my head, and it felt profoundly satisfying to be on exactly the same wavelength as him. Even as we’re surrounded by hundreds of people during the everyday moments of life, our lives are full of private, solitary thoughts. Generally, unless we choose to share, what happens in our minds is unknown and unrecognized by the people whose company we keep. There’s a thrill and a sense of kinship when we’re joined in thought by another: the eyes meeting and almost imperceptibly rolling across the dinner table in response to a speaker’s rambling story, the compassionate “we’ve been there” smile from a stranger holding her child’s hand as your toddler melts down in the park, the chorus of groans in an exercise class when the instructor suggests your least favorite pose. It feels good to be joined, wherever we are, and to gather the sense that we’re not alone in our ways of seeing and thinking about our circumstances.
Siblings provide a particularly fertile ground for this kind of connection because they often have an enormous array of shared memories and lenses through which they look at the world, thanks to formative years spent together and typically similar upbringings. I value these connections that I have with my siblings, and reflecting on them makes me want to nurture them even more.
Whether you are interested in strengthening your relationships with your siblings, or cultivating sibling relationships of your children, or looking to invest in sibling-like relationships with cousins and close friends of yours or your children, here are three tips for nourishing sibling relationships.
There’s the age-old debate between “quality and quantity,” but as far as communication with anyone whose relationship I especially value goes, I’m in favor of both. Quality matters, and that’s why prioritizing time together for in-person conversations and hugs and deep connection feels important. But quantity matters, too, because it keeps lines of communication open, it sends the message that a person is nigh in your thoughts, and it invites the other into the “regular moments” of your life, not just the birthdays and Christmases and family vacations. Texts and quick phone calls are my go-to’s for consistent communication, but I also like to pop notes in the mail every now and then as well. I’ll send a picture that my daughters colored, or an old snapshot that I found in my desk and I know will make them smile, or a meaningful card with an encouraging note.
Ask good questionsProximity, frequent time spent together, and regular communication do not necessarily guarantee depth of connection between two individuals. While they certainly help pave the way for meaningful bonds, closeness comes from the content shared as well as the actual act of togetherness. And much of that content comes forth, in my opinion, when the right questions are asked. In my experience, I’ve found that putting a little more thought into my questions has gone a long way towards helping me know my siblings better and to helping me feel closer to them. For instance, instead of asking, “How’s work?” I try, “What are you finding interesting these days?” It’s an open-ended question, for starters, and it also leaves room for the possibility of a longer conversation even for my siblings who are having a hard time in their careers at the moment. When a sibling shares a story, I ask follow-up questions (“Tell me more!”), and I focus on the feelings (“What was that like for you?”).
When I consider steps I can take to nourish my relationships with others, actions that involve both me and the other are what typically come to mind (think: talk on the phone together; go on a trip with each other). However, one of the best things we can do for all of our relationships is to pray for the people in them. For instance, I can pray for my brother’s and sister’s intentions (which I can gather by either asking them, or I can guess at them and know that God uses all our prayers); or I can pray a rosary for them; or I can pray that a favorite saint of theirs intercede on their behalf. Or, I can pray to Saints Mary, Martha and Lazarus, asking these three beloved siblings to nourish my relationship with my beloved siblings.
And with that, I lift my hands in prayer and my glass in a toast to St. Mary, St. Martha, and St. Lazarus. Friends of Jesus, friends of each other, help me to be the best sister that I can be and to follow Jesus as closely, lovingly, and trustingly as you did.