The town in which I grew up in didn’t have many stories of national importance associated with it. But it did have one. It was that of the five Sullivan brothers. Long before Tom Hanks starred in Saving Private Ryan (partially inspired by the Sullivan brothers), I knew the story of the guys from Iowa who were all killed in war. The entire family wiped out. As a kid, I remember thinking it would’ve been worse if only one or two had been killed. I believed that I couldn’t possibly carry on if even one of my siblings died. As the youngest of five, I was born into a story in progress and I simply couldn’t imagine living without them. Yet that’s exactly what I’ve had to do now that three of my siblings have died.
The first and most shocking death was that of my sister. She was just 29 years old and I was 26 at the time. She had an 8-year-old son from an ill-fated early marriage. We couldn’t have been more different. I had finished college, worked as an intern at a fitness magazine in Los Angeles and was repaying my student loans while trying to make it as a writer. I was a bookish health nut; my sister was a single mom, a waitress/bartender who spent her spare time painting pictures of horses and shooting pool. At the time of her death, she’d just gotten remarried and announced she was pregnant.
In June of that year, I went back to the Midwest for the wedding. It was the big one by small town standards that she didn’t have the first time around. Forget that there was a major storm and her wedding was supposed to be held outside. It all worked out and there are photos to prove it. In them, she looks happy, even serene. The only evidence we were standing outside with cyclone winds is one photo that shows my long, loose blonde hair completely vertical across my eyes. Within six weeks, though, I’d be truly blindsided. In fact, I’d be packing my sister’s wedding dress in a trunk, along with many of her other possessions, with the thought that maybe someday her little boy would want these memories of his mother.
My sister was killed in a car accident – as are about 36,000 other Americans each year. It was a bizarre accident on a gravel road in the middle of the country. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, a risk – especially now as a mother of two – I wouldn’t dream of taking. It would take me the next 15 or so years – and, unbelievably, two more deaths of siblings – before I’d really come to terms with her death.
In general, researchers know what happens to our brains when we experience the death of someone we love. Our pain network – including the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex and the insula, implicated in both physical and social pain – takes a hit. In some people, the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain associated with reward, social attachment and laughter, also changes.
So our brains actually morph with loss. And I can attest to that. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to convey what it’s like to lose a sister. I have to resort to a metaphor to even try: before, I inherently believed a house had four walls, a ceiling and a floor. There were just things that were certain. After my sister was gone, nothing was a given. My house stood, but my very foundation felt fragile, my roof half off.
In the immediate aftermath, I didn’t know how I could go on. Yet, of course, I did. I was compelled to do certain things. I cut my long hair, which I later learned is a mourning ritual practiced in many cultures worldwide. I dumped a long-term boyfriend (good riddance, really) and got involved with someone who was even more inappropriate for a few years. I took a full-time job in a public relations firm, which I’m sure was an escape from spending so much time alone as a writer. For years afterward, I would hear something funny and say “Oh, that’s funny” but never really laugh. When my sister’s son was about 10 years old and staying with me in Los Angeles, he pointed this out.
By most outward appearances, though, I was functioning. If I talked about my sister, I would tear up; so I didn’t do it often. At the chance that someone would ask about siblings, I would usually stumble a bit trying to decide if they were to be told or not. The real question: Do I say “I have a sister” or do I say “I had a sister”? I conjugated, sort of like you do for verbs in Spanish. Was this a formal encounter, somebody I might have a professional but not close relationship with? Or was this a peer, somebody whom I might consider a friend? The formal people got “I have” and the others got “I had” and some version of the story. Short: car accident. Or long: all the gory details about my nephew’s father being out of the picture, that my sister’s son was in the accident with her but escaped mostly physically unharmed, the fact that she lived for 5 days and died an hour before I arrived back in Iowa.
A few years after my sister’s death (everything is dated before or after) I met my future husband. Finding the love of my life was helpful to the healing process, but also brought up new opportunities to miss my sister. When I got engaged, got married and had both of my two sons the thought that she was gone and couldn’t witness the event was never far from mind. When I had heard my sister was pregnant I sent her a large box of baby clothes as a gift, which she received the week before her death. I can’t to this day look at a box of baby clothes and not immediately also think of her. I wonder, too, if this is why baby showers fill me with anxiety.
At 17, my sister’s son came to live with my husband and me in California. It was a disaster as well as a watershed healing time. He hated living with us, hated being away from his friends and the only home (with my mother after the accident) he’d really ever known. He’d stare at me, seemingly looking for clues about what his mother was. It forced me to squarely deal with the situation: my sister was dead, my nephew was alive and needed me. He said his memories of her were getting fuzzier. Mine weren’t. If I close my eyes even now, I can see her particular squint, hear her voice, she still shows up in my dreams; at times, I still wake half-forgetting she is gone. My nephew is an adult now; he has a job, a wife and a son. I’ve done what I could to help him, but it has been difficult. He struggled with drug abuse as a teen, depression and anxiety. These days he’s stable and happy, but has health issues that are undoubtedly rooted at least partially in his childhood trauma.
I bring this up because it’s a good example of what happens when an adult sibling dies. They often leave behind children and, while your loss as a brother or sister is felt immensely and overwhelmingly, you are also left to try to help the kids left behind. And because of this, sometimes your loss is simply relegated as a second-class one. His mother died, I’ve often reminded myself; she was only my sister.
About five years ago, my brother who suffered from poorly controlled epilepsy for his entire adult life had a grand mal seizure in his apartment on Halloween night. He died alone while I was out trick-or-treating with my young son. Within months, our eldest brother who was diagnosed with a mental illness in his early 20s took a lethal combination of prescription medication and was also found dead in his apartment. Aside from being just plain shocking and sad, there is something more to this chain of events. The brother who died of a seizure was said to have never really recovered from our sister’s death. Besides epilepsy, he drank too much and never figured out how to navigate work or other relationships. In short, he never had his life together. It was always this way for him, yet it got even worse after our sister died. It has also been said that our eldest brother died as a result of the other brother. They were very close and even when other family members were fed up with them, they always had each other. Our eldest brother didn’t leave a note, so we have no way to really know if his death was intended or not. And, yet, he reportedly told a friend that he didn’t feel like living since his brother was gone.
We rarely think of sibling death as having this much power. Because mostly we rarely think of sibling death. The death of a spouse or children, as a society, we seem to understand. We expect certain fallout and we’re there to support those people who endure these unimaginable tragedies. From my experience, though, we don’t know how to handle it when someone’s sibling dies. The novelist and poet Jim Harrison wrote that he started talking to trees after his brother died. When Henry David Thoreau’s sibling died it nearly killed him. Thoreau took to his sick bed with the same symptoms of the ailment that killed his brother; his illness was entirely psychological, though.
When you’re extremely vulnerable, like my two brothers were, I believe the death of a sibling has the power to kill you. When you’re a little more resilient, as I was, it only has the power to kill part of you. Your brothers and sisters share your DNA, they are the closest thing to a replica of you -- and when they die a part of you indeed dies with them.
With my brothers, I remember great waves of grief both for their deaths and their lives. They were guys who lived on the fringe of society, but they weren’t just that. They were my brothers. When they died I felt the waves of grief but I essentially held it together, probably because by that time I had a young son to take care of. Yet I found that grief lurks in the corner, just waiting for you.
Months later when I was finally alone for two weeks at a writing conference in upstate New York, it hit me. I was a wreck. I felt as if I was suffering from an emotional breakdown. I didn’t have any close friends there and I didn’t have a child or a deadline to meet. I barely made it through. In those two weeks, I felt the magnitude of my loss of my brothers but also grieved again for that of my sister. I cried most of the two weeks.
One fallacy is that it’s unusual to have a sibling die. At first blush, I thought I was the only one I knew who had endured this. Yet when I thought a little harder I remembered just how many people I knew who had lost siblings. A former coworker had a brother who committed suicide in college. Another friend’s brother, a doctor, had a heart attack at 35 and died. Another former coworker’s sister died of a drug overdose. Her brother had also been killed in a car accident while on leave from the military. Yet, in general, none of us talk much about our siblings dying and I think I know why. For some reason a sibling’s death, more than the death of anyone else, seems to reflect back on you. Since we are from the same stock, what does it say about us if they die young, tragically and/or senselessly? And, of course, there’s no word like “widow” to describe us. There’s just this deep sense of loss that is a part of our beings from then on.
Yet I’ve found that if you can survive it, there’s something else that comes along. Nobody talks about this, either. I believe we envision tragedy, especially shocking tragedy like siblings dying too young, as a burden. A friend remarked the other day that for somebody like me who has had such a tragic life I’m not a walking tragedy. I found this fascinating. I guess one might imagine that the loss of a sibling weighs you down. That you end up stooped and round shouldered, bearing the weight of these deaths, somehow diminished because these parts of you have died. But it’s not like that. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of one of my dead siblings, not a day that passes that I wouldn’t trade almost anything for them to still be here, and yet their deaths aren’t weights. To me, they have felt more like compromises. Of course, the secret is that compromises are what humanize us. People who have had to deal with compromise, whether it’s because of the death of siblings or something else, are the ones who are much more likely to suspend judgment, believe in second chances or even return your emails. And, yes, there are benefits to not believing a room must have four walls. If you believe that nothing is a given, then anything is possible.
In my hometown the Sullivan Brothers now have a brand-new museum named after them, and I have a different point of view. I never think it was for the best that the brothers died together. That innocent and romantic idea is gone. Now I know the truth. When you lose a sibling, you can endure. You’re never the same. Parts of you indeed die. And then, miraculously, parts of you multiply.
Victoria Clayton is a writer in Los Angeles.