Her Sister Won’t Discuss Family Death

Dear Vicki: Fran, a dear friend of the family, passed away almost three months ago. She was like an elderly aunt to me and my older sister Ruthie, and it has been hard for me to lose her. I’ve reached out to Ruthie to talk about it, but she apparently doesn’t want to. In hindsight, I can see that Ruthie never really wanted to talk about her feelings. We had a difficult relationship growing up and were very competitive as children. As we grew, I figured out that the easiest way to get along with Ruthie was to do things for her. I baked her favorite cookies, did some of her homework, and even knit her a scarf once. In short, I learned to hide it when I had strong opinions about something or really wanted to do something Ruthie didn’t. Now, I want to talk about Fran, but Ruthie will have none of it. I’m really frustrated about this because I think it’s time for me to be more of my real self around Ruthie. Why am I the one who has to change to get along? And how do I get Ruthie to talk to me about Fran? Signed: Disconnected Sister

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Dear Disconnected: I wish I could offer you a magic wand to make Ruthie more willing to talk about her feelings, but honestly, I’m not sure that’s possible. Based on your description of her, I suspect that Ruthie is a primary Wood personality. And given that the two of you were really competitive as children, I think you may be, too. But you also appear to have Earth as a very strong secondary part of your personality. Given this, the interactions between you and Ruthie become somewhat predictable and definitely understandable. Let me explain.

The Wood personality deeply values accomplishment and personal achievement. When two Wood people get together, if they aren’t careful, they can lapse into competitive behavior, possibly even bringing out the worst in each other. I suspect that any conflict between you and Ruthie was very difficult for your secondary Earth personality to take because family harmony is really important to the Earth personality. To avoid conflict and create harmony, it sounds like you stepped into that Earth part of your personality more and more around Ruthie. And one way to demonstrate that would be to do nice things for her.

I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, but Wood people usually don’t enjoy talking about feelings. It doesn’t feel safe to them because they don’t like to lose control. And Wood people absolutely hate to cry in front of others. It’s interesting that, as a Wood personality yourself, you want to talk about feelings, but I think that’s because you have come to act a lot more like an Earth personality around Ruthie. It’s where you feel safe with her. Also, since the Wood personality hates to lose, and the Earth personality hates competition, staying in the Earth part of your personality around Ruthie would have avoided conflict and made for calmer family dynamics.

This means that acting like a primary Earth personality is probably pretty entrenched in your relationship with Ruthie, and it’s that Earth part that will definitely want to talk and cry about Fran. But the Wood part of Ruthie’s personality probably won’t. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t love Fran, it just means she probably doesn’t see a benefit in digging up pain. It wouldn’t be surprising if, three months after Fran’s death, Ruthie has already processed the loss and moved on. Wood people focus on the future, rarely the past. But Earth people like to reminisce about departed family members; it helps them honor the close connection they had. That’s a big difference between the Wood and Earth personalities and something you may want to remember.

Something else you may want to remember is that by stepping into the Earth part of your personality you have avoided direct competition with Ruthie, but have created a different dynamic with her that still may not feel great. In the Five Elements model, Wood and Earth relate on the Controlling Cycle (the big star on the model below), with Ruthie’s Wood controlling your Earth. And because Wood people will usually go to great lengths to avoid chaos, Ruthie may feel compelled to shut down any demonstrable grieving you express for Fran while around her.

The Five Elements Model

But don’t worry, all is not lost. If you desire more connections with Ruthie, there are several ways you can begin developing them. One is to bring forward more of your Wood personality with her. But do this gently, you don’t want to look like you are challenging her in any way. And try “seasoning” your Wood energy with plenty of the Earth energy she’s used to from you. As two Wood personalities acting together, you might be able to create a common goal or project that you can tackle cooperatively. Wood people love to help the underdog, so maybe you could volunteer or take on an important cause together. There are certainly a lot of people who need help during this pandemic. Doing something like this together will also anchor your relationship in the present, rather than just the past. Be prepared that Ruthie might be too busy to take on anything right away; Wood people usually stay busy. But if you find the right project, she might agree because Wood people really like to make a difference in the world.

And while this might be a good start, the best way to develop a connection with Ruthie that will include the ability for you to talk about feelings and family is to connect with the Earth energy in Ruthie’s personality. Remember, we all have all five of the elemental personalities in our mix, so Ruthie does have Earth in her somewhere. Watch and see how she expresses it. Does she like to cook for her family? If so, perhaps you could take a cooking class together. Does she have pets? Our animals often bring out our Earth, so maybe you could walk dogs together or even take on foster pets together if you live near enough to each other. There is a great need for that right now. Does Ruthie like to garden? If so, you might offer to help Ruthie in the garden when you visit. These are all activities that could help you connect with Ruthie’s Earth.

In truth, this will probably be a long road, but it is possible to develop a relationship with Ruthie that brings in more of her Earth. The Wood part of her personality may never want to discuss her feelings with you (especially if she has a ready ability to share them with a husband or someone else in her life), but she might soften up enough to listen to you talk about your feelings. And that would be a wonderful start. I’m so sorry for the loss of Fran. Stay safe and well yourself.

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