How Losing a Sibling in Childhood Haunts the Parent I Am Today


My daughter turns 7 next week. She will have eight friends over for a pajama party. They’ll eat pizza and play games. I will hold the cake while she blows out the candles, and then I’ll hug her with all of my might and not believe she’s reached this age, how it happened so quickly.

My brother turned 7 in 1981. He, too, had eight friends over and they “ate pizza and had a really good time,” at least according to the diary entry I wrote on that day when I was 11 years old.

Honestly, I don’t remember that specific birthday of his, even though it was his last.

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Seven months later he would be killed, when a drunk driver hit our car as our family drove home from my ballet recital. That was five days before my last day of sixth grade — and 33 unfathomable years before I would hold in my arms my own 7-year-old child, spritely and joyous and alive.

My brother was the last 7-year-old person I really knew well, and now there’s my daughter — and sometimes she’ll remind me so much of him that I’ll have to take a deep breath to bust up the mini-explosion of panic and fear and sweet familiarity in my head. I know that it must be a developmental-stage thing, and that most 7-year-olds are probably goofy and moody and impish and quick. But I like to think there’s a little bit of him in my girl.

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What I do not like to think of: the vulnerability of my daughter’s new age. The vastness of the person already formed at 7. The depth of what we lost, which I now realize in a more complete way. The grief my parents felt, which I can only now profoundly understand.

I confuse them sometimes in my dreams, when the child at my side — the one I jarringly realize I am responsible for — will at first be my long-limbed, freckle-faced, honey-haired girl. But then I’ll look away for just a moment, and when I turn back, there, seamlessly, will be my lanky, redheaded brother in her place. Then I’ll awaken, and in my sleepy haze, won’t feel a bit of shock — only wistfulness — over their easy interchangeability.

My brother has not been so present for me in many, many years — just as my daughter has never seemed so fleeting. And though it’s taken me by surprise, this extreme reaction to her birthday, it’s apparently not a strange one.

“Losing your brother is intimately connected to your daughter turning 7, and it should be,” Joanne Cacciatore, a grief-based psychotherapist and Arizona State University professor of social work specializing in traumatic loss, tells me. “You know where he would be now, and he’s physically missing from your life. Of course it’s going to bring this up.” Plus, she adds, “Now you are considering what your parents endured, and it strikes terror into your heart. And the more we push away our thoughts and fears, the more clever they get in presenting themselves to us.”

Cacciatore adds that, while there’s not been much research into the anxiety-based effects of parenting on those who have lost a sibling in childhood, “I see it all the time, clinically.”

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, author of The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age and a mom of two boys, ages 6 and 9, says she’s had similar experiences since becoming a parent. “I was fine after my first son was born. But then my second son was born and I was a mess,” she recalls. “It was like being sideswiped.” When DeVita-Raeburn’s older brother was 9, he was diagnosed with a severe immune disorder that had him confined to a sterile plastic bubble for years, before dying at age 17. “It was complicated grief I had lived with for a long time,” the Brooklyn writer, 49, says.

When her second son was born, her therapist helped her figure out why that grief crept back in. “I had twisted it into believing that I had done to my older son what had been done to me — saddling him with a needy sibling,” she says. “But I had been unpacking that loss for my entire life, and at that point I just got it, it clicked. I had the tools to understand.” DeVita-Raeburn also had intense feelings when her older son turned 6 — the age she was when her brother was diagnosed — and again now, as her younger son is that age. “It makes it easier for me to envision myself at that age,” she says, “and what it must have felt like.”

Similarly, Dr. Heidi Horsley, a New York-based psychologist and grief expert who specializes in sibling loss, says she’s been experiencing fresh turmoil since her son recently turned 17 — the same age her brother was when he died, along with their cousin, in a car accident many years ago. “It’s a parallel process, because it’s made me think about my brother — but then I’m also thinking about how my parents must have felt,” she says. “I felt very anxious as we got closer to his birthday, and I’m anxious this year in general. I feel like I’ll be fine when he’s 18.”

For Horsley — who serves on the national board of the Compassionate Friends support network for those who have lost children, and who, along with her psychotherapist mom, Gloria Horsley, runs the organization Open to Hope Mission: Finding Hope After Loss — the loss has changed the trajectory of her life.

“I think the way I parent is profoundly different because I lost a sibling,” she says, “because I realize that children do die.” But that knowledge has made her appreciate her children in a deep way that makes her feel fortunate every day. “You realize that you can live life in an anxious state,” she adds, “or that you can do everything right, and something could still go wrong. And then just try to let go.”

Words I will try, as my dear girl turns 7, to live by.

(Illustration by Erik Mace for Yahoo Parenting)

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