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Published December 09, 2013, 12:48 PM

Building family bonds: Maintaining connections after parents’ deaths can be difficult

Fargo -- The Meldahl sisters have always been close.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

Fargo -- The Meldahl sisters have always been close.

Growing up, they were each other’s best friends and that hasn’t changed now that they’re adults with families of their own, living in different parts of the country.

Maintaining those family connections is so important that the sisters started running half marathons together. And when someone has a big family event, like a wedding or a graduation, they all try to make it and bring their families along, even if it means taking a trip to Hawaii.

“We’ve always enjoyed times that we had together,” said Kim Dienslake of Fargo. “Mom and Dad were pretty big on wanting people to get together for Christmases and things. When Dad passed away I wasn’t even 30 yet. Mom really made it a point to get together.”

After their mother, Ruea Meldahl, died in April of 2012, Dienslake and her sisters, Jackie Modrow of Kennewick, Wash., JoDee McMillen of Battleground, Wash., and Vicki Warnecke of Highland, Ill., made it a point to continue maintaining strong family bonds.

“We just have a lot of fun together,” McMillen said. “That’s the big key. We’re good friends and we have fun together.”

The holidays are a time when families often gather together. But that can be tough for siblings whose parents have died.

Connie DeKrey, a bereavement specialist for Hospice of the Red River Valley, says the relationship siblings have prior to their parents’ deaths plays a big role in determining whether the siblings maintain bonds when their family center is no longer around.

“If a group of siblings isn’t inclined to gather prior to the parent’s death, then it’s unrealistic to expect they would do so after,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be an expectation. Would they be inclined to spend time together if they were not connected by blood?”

Mothers are often the family hub and toward the end of their lives, they’re often concerned that their children will continue to convene as a family, DeKrey said.

But, she says, a lot of factors can make getting together difficult, including things like finances, family activities and commitments, and how far apart siblings live from each other.

“If they’re scattered all over the country it’s going to take planning and expenditure of resources to get together,” she said. “It can be a lot of work to make it happen.”

Sometimes it’s a parent’s dying wish that the siblings stay connected, yet the siblings were never really all that close.

“Those kids are going to need to address that as individuals,” she said. “Everyone grieves differently. They’re going to need to make peace with mom’s dying wish however they do that. It might be that they recognize they were never close prior to their mom’s death and can’t expect to be afterward.”

One thing DeKrey says they can do is stay in touch through things like email and birthday or holiday cards.

“That is a key, making the choice to leave the door open,” she said. “That is something that at least honors that parent’s desire, just to share what everyone is willing to share and to invite updates and news as well.”

For the Meldahl sisters, the work to maintain those family bonds is worth the effort.

“Our Mom did not let obstacles stop her from doing anything. Likewise, we do not let what may discourage others from getting together affect us,” Modrow said. “We find a way.”

The women grew up on a farm in Finley, N.D. They were each other’s best friends and would spend hours exploring or playing in a chicken coup their mother had converted into a playhouse.

Their parents always emphasized the importance of family. During the harvest, they wouldn’t eat dinner until 10 or 11 o’clock at night when everyone could be together, Modrow said. And after their dad, Julian Meldahl, died in 1990, their mom maintained close connections with her in-laws.

“All along our mother and father stressed that family was the No. 1 most important thing,” McMillen said. “They’re the people who will overlook your faults and will always be there no matter what the circumstances.”

They also had a brother, Brad Meldahl, who died when he was 20. Losing him at an early aged emphasized the importance of life and family, Modrow said.

The women used to go home almost every summer with all of their kids so they could build close family bonds, too. It’s something they hope to continue.

“I feel it’s important that we keep that going,” Warnecke said. “We want our kids to be great friends with their cousins and carry it on down to their children. That’s what family is about.”

In December of 2011, they all managed to make it home with their families for what would end up being Ruea Meldahl’s last Christmas. She was diagnosed with cancer the preceding October.

“It was so important to her,” Warnecke said. “And it’s important to our kids. They love getting together with their family.”

At the end of Meldahl’s life when she was in hospice care, all of her daughters were there.

“It’s important to us that we’re there for each other,” Dienslake said. “We’ve always had that bond.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526