Life & Culture

Ask Hilary: A criminal in the family, and a case of empty nest syndrome


Q My brother will soon be coming out of jail where he has been serving a sentence for fraud. My sister says he has paid his debt to society and we should forgive him and welcome him back as he will need our support. But I am finding it difficult to forgive him for shaming the family.

He doesn’t seem to take responsibility for his crimes, and says he was suffering from stress. What should I do?

A Your brother has served his sentence and has been punished for his crime, so is it fair for you to continue to punish him for what you perceive as another crime: bringing shame on your family?

Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of family shame. In some cultures, it’s considered (wrongly and illegally) justification for murder. When a member of your family does something wrong, publicly, it’s hard not to feel that you are being judged, too — especially in a small community like the Jewish one, where everyone knows everyone, and their business.

The truth is — as any decent, rational person will see — your brother’s crime does not reflect on you. But the way you treat him on his release will do. As your sister is aware, he’ll require a lot of help to get back on his feet and reintegrate into the community and society as a whole. While you’re not obliged to support him, be aware that distancing yourself from him won’t heal your shame or make him take ownership of his crime.

It might actually be easier for him to show remorse if he doesn’t feel judged, if he knows that you are able to forgive him. That doesn’t mean pretending everything is fine, or that the crime never happened, but just making an effort to try to move past it.

Perhaps you need to talk about your feelings with other members of your family and close friends. You can also get support from the Offenders’ Families Helpline Telephone: 0808 808 2003

Q My youngest child has recently started university, and I am finding it hard to adjust. We get on so well, and I’m used to seeing her every day and being part of her life.

Now I am painfully aware that it’s time to step back and let her get on with her life, but I can’t decide how much contact is appropriate. Is it too much to be having conversations every day? I don’t want to be a smothering “Jewish mother” but I also want her to know I care!

A What you’re feeling is commonly known as Empty Nest Syndrome. It’s a real psychological condition, and the sadness and emptiness you’re experiencing are absolutely normal.

After decades of devoting yourself to being a mother, to putting your offspring first, that part of your life is now over.

It’s natural to feel bereft, especially as it sounds like you have a very good relationship with your daughter.

Congratulate yourself on a job done well: you’ve helped to shape a functioning, independent adult. And console yourself with the knowledge that she will miss you, too, and will doubtless be back to visit often — probably with a rucksack full of dirty washing and a desire for homemade chicken soup.

Make sure you keep yourself busy, arranging things with your friends and enjoying the time you now have for yourself, whether it’s with gardening, reading, yoga or visiting art galleries (or whatever floats your own particular boat). You need to create new routines for yourself.

As for how much contact is appropriate, you might feel you want to speak to your daughter all the time now, but once you get used to her absence your need to communicate with her will become less urgent.

Why not ask her if you can set up a regular time to chat, perhaps once or twice a week, at a regular — but moveable if necessary — time? You can always send the odd text that just says “thinking about you” so she knows you care but doesn’t feel obliged to reply.

What you shouldn’t do is let on how much you miss her and how hard you’re finding it. She hasn’t done anything wrong and shouldn’t feel guilty.

If you’re feeling blue, there’s a support group called Family Lives, which helps with this and any other family issue.
See the page: or call the helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also chat to other parents on the forums.

Contact Hilary via email at, anonymously or not. Or write to her at 28 St Albans Lane, London NW11 7QE

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