Therapist A is a counsellor with a psychodynamic approach with experience of working with adults and young people .
Terminal illness in a family can often bring out or emphasize conflict and conflicting feelings that have been lying beneath the surface. Both you and your sister are going through a very painful and frightening time. You recognize your sister’s terror at the idea of dying but there is perhaps also anger in her that you will go on living. Maybe you feel guilty that you will survive and also feel out of control because ultimately you cannot prevent what will happen. Your letter conveys the chaos that you feel inside.

It is clear from what you say that your family, perhaps as a result of your mother’s personality, has a history of disharmony and your sister has been left with very conflicting feelings about you and maybe other family members, which she finds it hard to bear. It could be that difficult feelings are dealt with in your family by attacking each other and that nobody feels able to express openly what they really feel. You don’t say whether you also suffered abuse from your mother but it is possible your sister feels that you got off lightly in relation to her. It seems, from what you say, that she felt that you abandoned her when you came to France. Does she feel that you left her to cope with your mother or other family members?

You express your feelings of rejection and frustration at not knowing how best to support your sister. You had the idea that counselling might help and it might be still worth trying to find a counsellor in her area who has experience of working with the dying, give her the number and then let her decide about it on her own. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has an on line directory where you should be able to find a well-qualified counsellor.

However it might also be possible for you to let her talk to you. When you are with her over Christmas maybe you can try to find quiet times when you can encourage her to talk about what she is really feeling. You will need to be patient with her and not let yourself be provoked by what seems unreasonable and unfair. Maybe it would help you to talk to a counsellor to sort out some of your feelings before you see her. I am sure you could find someone on this site, Counselling in France, or in the BACP international directory.

What ever you do, listen to your sister and try to work out the best ways of helping her. Do what you think you reasonably can to support her in a consistent way. If she rejects your help and you feel angry, try not to retaliate, defend yourself or completely withdraw.
Therapist B is a Relate-trained counsellor with experience of working with relationship issues and is an experienced couples counsellor


I am very struck with how caring you have managed to remain in this difficult and painful situation. You clearly understand the dynamics of your family and also that it’s really important to look after your own needs. It seems clear that your sister is projecting her anger and fear onto you as a way of dealing with her unmanageable feelings. You describe the classic signs of the term “control freak” and of course, cancer is one of those diseases which is very difficult to control, it runs riot and creates havoc in the body and the emotions as well as within families. It must be very frightening to have your health and future so out of control without having a say in the matter.

I wonder what your role has always been in your birth family but I would guess that it has been one of peacemaker and the one who takes bad behaviour and handles it because you are expected to behave that way, the one that the family members expect to take abuse and still smile?

I guess that it would be very difficult for you to step out of that role because your sister’s illness appears to have trapped you – you may feel you can’t refuse her or her needs now that she is so ill. However, you do have choices. Choice 1, you can passively accept all the manipulation, because that is clearly what it happening – she has already paid for your tickets, she has made the rules to suit herself and not taken your feelings into account, she has backed you into a corner and battered you with her pain because she wants someone to make it all better and take it away from her.

Choice 2, healthier for you, is to stop accepting this given childhood role. Of course she is frightened and feeling alone, but one way to look at it is that while you love your sister and empathise with her, you do not have to tolerate her bad behaviour. Look at it as her “behaviour” that is bad, not her as a person and it all becomes much easier to cope with. If a child behaves badly, you make it clear to them that while you still love them, you won’t accept being pushed around and that you will not respond to  tantrums and manipulative behaviour, but you will reward good behaviour. Children who are given those boundaries feel much safer and happier than those who are allowed to push others around. Clear boundaries would protect you because your final sentence “I feel as if my very existence sparks it” may be the key. You are too important for your sister to lose right now and maybe it's time to use that to create a few ground rules of your own. Have you got an ansaphone? If not, perhaps you should get one so that YOU are in control of conversations and when she can get hold of you. Make it clear to her that you love her but you will not tolerate abusive talk and warn her just once that you will stop the conversation, assertively and without anger. If she carries on then put the phone down but don’t feel guilty as you had warned her and she has to learn that abuse won't get her anywhere with you any longer. Maybe you can decide what you will do at Christmas, how long you will spend with her and maybe make it clear that it's up to you where and how long you stay, whoever has paid for the tickets? She may be very ill but I have a feeling she will actually feel better if you take back some control and give her some behaviour boundaries. Some of the Self-Help exercises on this website: http://www.counsellinginfrance.com/SELFHELP/selfhelp.htm may help.

Good luck and I hope that you recognise that you are not being an unkind sister by protecting yourself but be prepared for her to struggle at first with any change you make as she is used to you taking whatever is thrown at you, but in the long run, it may greatly help her as well as you.

Therapist C is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with experience of working with relationship and many other issues.

Therapist C's answer to this dilemma will be published when received