Keeping in touch with siblings after lives move apart

For the past 15 years, Clive Russ and his younger sister, Anne, have lived in different countries - he in England, she in South Africa; he in South Africa, she in Madagascar; he in France, she in Senegal. Now, he lives in the United States and she lives in the Dominican Republic.

''She writes to me, and I phone her,'' says Mr. Russ, a free-lance photographer in Boston. Although it's the best contact they can manage, he finds it ''quite unsatisfactory,'' especially now that his sister has a family with young children and he is about to get married.

''It would be much more fun if we were living on the same continent and not a

Even less globe-trotting adult siblings find it challenging to stay in touch with each other's lives once they move out of the family home.

''When you get spread across the map and brothers and sisters begin to have their own families, there has to be something that unifies you,'' says 22 -year-old Christopher Lynch, the youngest of eight children. He believes part of the sustaining link in his family is a strong appreciation for each member's individuality.

''From the outside, people may think 'all the Lynches are the same,' but we have a lot of diverse personalities. When you're inside the family, you can really see the differences,'' Mr. Lynch says. Rather than creating divisions, though, the differences ''probably help knit us together. I've taken a little bit from each (family member). Even though there is a 20-year spread in our ages , we can all get together under one roof and have a good time.''

Thirty-two-year-old Calli Spheeris ''gets along famously'' with her two younger brothers: John, 28, and Chris, 25. She attributes their closeness, in part, to their cultural roots.

''We come from a Greek family and Greek families are incredibly close,'' says Miss Spheeris, who studies architecture in Chicago. Her two brothers, who are living in Greece, keep in touch by letters, phone calls, and occasional visits.

They had their share of childhood squabbles, Miss Spheeris says. But, ''when I moved out to go to college, there was an immediate turnaround in my brothers' attitudes. All of a sudden they were really nice to me - we had more to talk about because we had different experiences. Now we have a fantastic relationship.''

Few people realize it, but ''there is no one individual a person tends to know longer in the world than a sibling,'' says Dr. Joel Milgram of the University of Cincinnati, who did a series of studies with a colleague, Dr. Helgola Ross, on adult-sibling relationships. When people reach old age, they found, siblings become particularly important for support and as a link to the past.

''It seems clear,'' he says, ''where families stressed the importance of family, the siblings felt a deeper obligation to stay in contact and friendly as they grew older.''

Although barriers sometimes arise between grown brothers and sisters, ''to lose a sibling relationship is a great loss - it's part of the basic fabric of what we are,'' says Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. ''They should be capitalized on as a source of strength and sense of support.''

''Your brothers and sisters know you as no one else does,'' says 22-year-old Barbara Norton of Monroe, Wis., who comes from a family with seven children. ''We've helped each other through some serious things.''

Miss Norton keeps contact with her six older brothers and sisters as much as possible. She meets one of her sisters who lives nearby for breakfast three times a month, for example, and keeps up regular contact with another sister, Jean, who lives in Alaska. She says Jean is still her closest sister, even though they haven't seen each other for more than two years.

Miss Norton finds long-distance relationships can yield unexpected discoveries: ''You find out how the other person has changed - sometimes in a way that is really foreign to you. The biggest thing is getting over that and realizing they are still your brother or sister and you still love them even though they change,'' she says. ''You have to accept that if you want to stay close.''

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