Advice | Carolyn Hax: Family requests that sibling’s crime stay a secret

Hi, Carolyn: My only sibling recently pleaded guilty to a crime that will land them in prison for the better part of a decade. My mother, our only remaining parent, lives near my sibling, while I live across the country with my two kids.

I will be visiting my family with the kids this spring, and in preparation, I shared with my mom that I will be telling my kids, in developmentally appropriate terms, what is going on with my sibling.

My mom got very angry with me and told me she disagreed. Several days later, my aunt emailed me “on behalf of” herself, her two adult kids (my first cousins) and her brother to tell me they all feel very strongly that I do not share any details about my sibling with our extended family members when I visit them next month. She even specifically included a lie I could tell instead.

They are concerned about their reputation, their “good name” (which they don’t share with my sibling, though I do) and their ability to be respected in their hometown. There was no mention of care for me, or recognition of the challenge I am going through grieving my only sibling and their choices.

I am deeply uncomfortable and offended by this. Keeping secrets is not how I operate and is also what led my sibling to ruin their life. Not to mention other instances where keeping secrets has resulted in irreparable damage to family bonds. These family members and I rarely speak, and they have never visited me or my kids where we live. Even if I did feel a strong sense of duty to them, I find lying about something like this to be morally reprehensible.

What may I say to my aunt regarding her email? I hadn’t even decided what I was going to tell my extended family about my sibling, but now I am just so angry with these family members for trying to strong-arm me into lying that it’s hard to think straight about the situation.

Emotional: This all sounds so difficult, I’m sorry.

You communicated with your mom as a courtesy, information only, about choices you are fully entitled to make for yourself. That is the baseline fact here.

When she and the others (mis)took it as an invitation to weigh in on your business — and encouraged you to lie — they piled distractions onto the basic fact.

Now you have new stress on top of the original stress, all of which will take some time and attention to manage, but it, too, is a distraction. The basic fact is still this: You communicated with your mom as a courtesy, information only.

So clear the distractions and embrace the fact. Then your response becomes simple: that you will speak of this as you see fit. Right? Because that was true all along, no matter what anyone said. You were always the last word on your own approach to this mess.

Once you’re centered on this point, the only issue left is how to present to others your commitment to self-determination.

I suggest calm, polite, succinct, honest and utterly disengaged from any discussions you don’t intend to have. For example, reply to your aunt’s email: “No doubt this is hard for all of us. To be clear, I won’t lie to anyone. It is helpful, though, to know how you all feel. See you soon, [Your Name].” Not up for negotiation? Then don’t negotiate.

You can deflect all strong-arming, no matter the source — calmly, firmly. That, too, is a baseline fact, even as you tinker with how you’ll phrase your “no.”

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