When Siblings Die Young

Many decades ago, there was a little girl who had a wonderful life. She lived comfortably, with two parents who adored her, a younger brother she could boss around, two equally doting sets of grandparents, a great-grandmother who thought she could do no wrong, and a great aunt who was captivated by her.

Too young to realize her family was not rich, she lived in a cozy house with her own room. The girl loved animals and music, and her favorite toys were the plastic and stuffed animals she collected. Never having been away from home before, she found the start of kindergarten to be a little scary. But soon she felt welcome there, making several new friends. She was safe and secure; all was right in her little world.

Then one day, a change occurred. Her brother had been sick with the mumps, just as she had been a few weeks prior. She recuperated, but her brother was getting worse. Her parents took him to the doctor and then to the hospital. Mommy stayed with him; Dad cared for her, assisted by rotating grandmothers.

When she inquired about her brother, she was told that he was really sick, but he would be coming home soon.  Only he did not.

Security Shattered by Brother’s Death

After a couple of weeks, the little girl heard the phone ring early in the morning, which was unusual. Her father answered it and then came back into the bedroom where the girl was sitting with her grandmother. He told them that her brother had died during the night.

At that point, everything changed for the little girl. There was no more safety, no more security. Actual events became fuzzy, but the pain, hurt, and fear launched by that phone call became part of the girl’s world from that point onward.

As you may have ascertained, the girl in the above paragraphs was this author. The story of my brother’s death, and in many ways my own life, is something that I do not speak about often. It has taken me many years, much research and reading, and numerous insights to understand the depth and breadth of the influence of this trauma on my life.

In ways conscious and unconscious, this seminal event has made me the person I am today; I am still in the process of understanding its impact.

A Second Sibling Loss

Forty years later, my only other sibling and younger brother died suddenly at the age of 41. Going through sibling loss twice, at two distinct ages, was shocking and monumental. By cruel twists of fate, I was forced to view this issue from various perspectives. By the time of my second brother’s death, I was a psychology professor with two degrees, achievements which I had long ago realized were attempts to explore my own psyche as well as to teach others.

I was also a mother, so it was not a huge leap to empathize with my parents. I had many years of experience working with children of preschool age, so I had a firmer grasp on how kids think and feel. Slowly, I developed a better understanding of how children interpret death and interact with siblings, and why the combination of the two can have long-lasting effects.

This is an excerpt from Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling, by Sue Trace Lawrence.

Read more by Sue on Open to Hope: https://www.opentohope.com/sibling-survivors-need-connection/

Sue Trace Lawrence

Sue Lawrence is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology who began teaching at Ursinus in 2011. An alumna of Ursinus who graduated with a B.S. in psychology in 1983, she earned her M.Ed. and certification in School Counseling at West Chester University. At the present time she is working toward a graduate certificate in neuropsychology from Ball State University. While a student at Ursinus, she served as the teaching assistant for Experimental Psychology and earned Departmental Honors for her research on learned helplessness. In addition, her original sociology research was published in Pennsylvania Folklife. In addition to teaching psychology at UC and other colleges, Sue has worked as a counselor and educational consultant, along with holding teaching and administrative positions in early childhood programs. She is a certified PQAS trainer for the state of Pennsylvania and provides professional development trainings for early childhood and school age staff in her position as Assistant Childcare Director for the Pottstown Branch of the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA. Sue has written and self-published a book of poems and short-stories in collaboration with her late brother entitled Sob Stories. Currently, Sue has been conducting original research with UC students on the topics of childhood loss, grief, and trauma. She is currently working on a children’s book on sibling loss and has published a handbook for adults entitled Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling. Her future research interests lie in further exploring how early childhood traumatic grief experiences influence children into adulthood.

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