Thursday, May 7, 2009

What a coincidence!

Yesterday I posted on a new study that looked at the impact of losing an infant sibling when you were very young, or even before you were born. I commented that, though understudied, the stories I’d heard from people suggested that this was a huge—huge!—life event.

Then last night, my friend, psychologist Heidi Horsley, PsyD, who also lost a sibling, and who now specializes in grief, called my attention to a really spectacular essay by Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in The Wall Street Journal.

Roth was asked to write a response to that age-old college essay question: What person has influenced you most? His response: His older brother, Neil, who died of meningitis at age 5, and who he never met. Roth was born about 16 months after Neil’s death. “Only after I was a father myself did I learn that having another child was the balm prescribed to help heal my parents' pain,” writes Roth.

Like most families, Neil’s death wasn’t talked about much. Typically, Roth didn’t even know what had happened to his brother until he himself was in his twenties. “We were, my parents determined, going to have normal childhoods,” writes Roth. We were not going to grow up in a house of tragedy. Still, at the moments when the old home movies were brought out, or at the memorial services on Yom Kippur, our parents' pain briefly became visible.”

Is a child born after a dead sibling affected by the loss? Here’s Roth on the subject:

“I was to fill the void left by this loss. Or perhaps I was supposed to create a new life for my family by reclaiming their right to happiness. In any case, I felt a special, but certainly unspoken, role. I was to be the hero who would set the family right again. I was to heal the wounds caused by the death of that beautiful little boy in the picture. Yet I was also to remain the trace of those wounds.

At least that's how I felt the influence of my missing, ideal brother. I was to excel in school, but even great grades never felt good enough. One of the most fulfilling moments of my life was winning a valedictorian award named for my brother at our religious school. As a college student at Wesleyan, I turned to the study of philosophy and psychology, always within some kind of historical context. I told my teachers I was interested in how people make sense of the past, especially in how they deal with loss. My first research papers and then my books focus on how we create a past with which we can live. I wrote about Freud and Hegel, about trauma and about revolution, always with attention to how individuals or groups find ways to overcome significant loss without merely forgetting it. The personal and the professional melded together.”

Any question left in your mind?

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