Warning: This post contains spoiler information from the January 27th episode of Downton Abbey.
I don’t count as a Downton Abbey fanatic – I skipped most of season 2 – but I am firmly back into devotion with season 3. I recently watched episode 4, in which Lady Sybil gives birth. (I tend to be one episode behind.) When Sybil shows signs of distress, there’s a rather predictable clash between a high-and-mighty elite doctor and the long-time family physician (guess who was right). After giving birth to a healthy child (cue relief in the audience), Sybil dies of eclampsia after some agonizing seizures, her family watching in horror.
The scene was shocking to this unspoiled viewer, but an even more powerful scene came later: the two remaining daughters stand by their dead sister and face reality together. Ladies Mary and Edith both love Sybil, see her as the good and kind one. In contrast, Mary and Edith get along poorly and have betrayed each other in cruel ways. The shock of their sister’s death brings them to an honest moment.
Edith acknowledges that she and Mary have not liked each other much. But, she wonders, might they now get along better?
Mary speaks the truth: “I doubt it.” This death will not really change their relationship. Mary says, “But since this is the last time we three shall all be together in this life, let’s love each other now, as sisters should.”
To acknowledge that we don’t like our family members or don’t treat them well is painful and rare. We usually find those feelings unpleasant and cover them up with various defenses (including blaming others for causing all the problems). We may not know how to love someone who is difficult to love.
When I saw this scene I was brought back to the night I stood by my sister’s bed, a few hours before her death following a hemorrhagic stroke. I assured her we would take care of her sons. I told her she was safe. And I apologized to her.
I apologized for not being a good enough sister. Although I didn’t say these words, I could have said, “I’m sorry for not knowing how to love you very well.” Like so many siblings, my sister and I were different in temperament and in our approach to life. We grew up in a home where sibling rivalry flourished (a rivalry that seemed to favor me). Even when I recognized the competitive undercurrent of our relationship and how it cost us both, I was not successful in altering my behavior or feelings.
Then my sister lay dying. Expressing myself honestly was easy enough in this changed dynamic—she could not respond, which gave me full control. The intimacy that comes from honesty was safe in this one-way communication. I felt guilty for having it so easy.
Although Mary acknowledges that she and Edith probably won’t change, she is aware that the trauma offers the two of them a chance not offered in life: the chance for the three of them to be together, loving, one last time. I, too, had that chance with my sister, and it was a moment I will never forget. No matter how quickly Mary and Edith revert to their old patterns, that one altered moment—their loving moment—will exist in them, perhaps reverberating, perhaps creating little pockets of possibility. Perhaps their one loving moment will live on, as it did for me.
Questions for Reflection: Do you have relationships with family members where you struggle with loving (or liking) someone? What would you wish to say to that person? Have you ever experienced important communication around a death or trauma? How was that communication different from what you normally experience?
Writing Prompts: “It pains me to admit that my relationship with _______ is ______ (then keep writing); “I relate to this post through my experience with ______ (then keep writing); “To admit my honest feelings towards ______ brings up feelings of ______ (then keep writing); “To communicate more honestly in my family will require me to ______ (then keep writing).