You really must click here to hear my friends, mother daughter pyschologists, Gloria and Heidi Horsley, being interviewed about why we mourn when celebrities die. I must confess, the parts I love most are when Gloria decimates the five steps of mourning myth (Go Gloria!) and Heidi demolishes closure.
There's nothing more validating than hearing people who get grief talk about it. Love it.
FYI, Gloria and Heidi know the score from all angles. In 1983, Scott, Gloria's son and Heidi's brother, was killed in a car accident. Both have since devoted their lives to helping others heal. Check out their organization, The Open to Hope Foundation.
I promised them, and then I forgot. Here's one sibling loss related excerpt from Catcher in the Rye. It's Holden, talking about not liking to go visit his brother's grave.
"When the weather's nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie's grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I certainly don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetary. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all. It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice--twice--we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetary started running like hell over to their cars. That's what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner--everybody except Allie. I couldn't stand it. I know it's only his body and all that's in the cemetary, and his soul's in Heaven and all that crap, but I couldn't stand it anyway. I just wish he wasn't there. You didn't know him. If you'd known him, you'd know what I mean. It's not too bad when the sun's out, but the sun only comes out when it feels like coming out."
I received this astonishing poem in the mail, along with a letter from the author, Robin Standish, in 2005. Unfortunately, it got lost in the pile of papers on my desk. A couple of weeks ago, I was cleaning up (finally), and came across it. I can't tell you how moved I was, how blown away by what Standish captured, about early sibling loss.
Standish was 7 when her 2-year-old brother, George, died of leukemia. She didn't even know he was sick. Or rather, her parents had neglected to define what was wrong with him. She assumed, as she writes in her poem, that he had "some ordinary illness"---chicken pox, measles. One day, she woke up, and he was gone. Standish was 68 at the time she wrote her letter, enclosing the poems.
Sibling loss, sadly, is a life-long experience.
I contacted Standish as soon as I read the poem. The poem is going to be published in the fall, along with some others, by Writers' Workshop India. I can't wait to see what else she's written. Meanwhile, she's kindly allowed me to "publish" the poem that caught my attention here.
Children, Death for George William Dickerson, 1941-1943
Already in the sepia photograph you can tell-- something is wrong.
The house with its prim shutters, its windows of repeating panes, seems not to know yet;
or, perhaps, just as a house contains old secrets, it could hold events about to come.
Surely I don't know, standing there in my starched pinafore, smiling feckless into the sun.
Only my brother knows he will not live. The angled planes of his once-round face reveal it,
and his eyes, not focused in this world, already explore the next.
The angel of remission held him long enough for our father to take the picture and a few weeks more, but only that.
Then Little Bud, the aspiring botanist's son, was dead.
III. New Theology
Please, God, I'd prayed, bring me a brother or a sister,
I didn't care which, my craving the sign of oblique knowing:
in this family, I'd need an ally to traverse the jarring cleft
between what I experienced and what I was told.
My prayer appeared to be imperfectly constructed, like a fairy tale wish;
I'd pleaded only for a sibling's birth, neglecting to say I wanted him to live.
Such a belief implies a capricious and mean-spirited god, a powerful
but loveless god-- a prospect too alarming to embrace;
believing in no god at all was prefereable to this.
Then I saw my proposition had been backwards:
An infinately wise and loving Guide depends on us to repair the world.
No simple intervention will right our grave mistakes.
Our hands, our heartminds are God's only implementing tools.
The work is ours.
No one tells me your white corpuscles are multiplying exponentially, that leukemia will overtake you this night or the next, so I idly sip milk and read to you, the story of a doll who lives a hundred years.
I rock in the chair beside your bed, believing you have some ordinary illness, like chicken pox, and you'll wake tomorrow with nothing more to show for your distress than a few round scars, like mine, crinkled at the edges.
Next morning I find your bed empty, the blue quilt thrown back, knotted, cold. They can do this, then, our parents, conceal death, make you vanish, prevent us even from saying goodbye.
To think that I had trusted the simplicity of sleep, darkness, parents.
V. A zeal to call my brother back compels me. I want to wake him, force him out of his image in the picture, alive. I scream and scream, but no sound comes.
I conjure desperate beliefs: surely Dad's elaborate new camera has the power that together with my will, can sustain the person held in the image, draw him forth, back into the world.
Didn't my brother always reappear among the garden shrubs when we played hide and seek ? If the photo, once concealed in its envelope is now in my hand, then surely
my brother must be somewhere, too, hidden in the drawer of the great walnut bureau, or sleeping peacefully among the fragrant linens of the cedar chest.
Although I breathe in deeply, scents of lavender and cedar hang in the empty air.
A sense of ultimate powerlessness creeps over me, numbs me from my toes up, as if I also vanish,
or become a kind of ghost myself, transparent, something else our parents have disappeared,
or at least forgotten in their overwhelming grief. If my family does not notice me, do I exist?
If my brother is no longer here, can I join him? How to survive the secrets of that perfect-looking house, the only child they have left?
Brother, spirit guide, witness while I labor to unwrap the secrets, lay them bare, reclaim you and the lost parts of myself.
You are my Plato, urging me out of the cave with your sweet, pragmatic song as I stumble, wincing into light.
(this set is part of a series of childhood memory poems)
Well, my uneducated response to a question like this would be, "Duh." But, I have to admit, I would have no idea just how they'd be affected. A new study in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has tried to come up with some answers, though. British researchers followed 52 mothers who'd had children after a stillbirth, to see if they could discern any effect. Basically, the kids were alright--but the researchers did report "less than optimal" mother-child interaction, and comment on the fact that these mothers tended to report more problems with their kids, and to be more critical of them. Here's a write-up of the study. These findings makes me sad. It's not that I don't feel for the mothers. I can't even imagine what it must be like to give birth to a stillborn baby. It's just so sad for the kids who come next, and have no idea what they're being born into. It's that actor-coming-into-a-play-without-a-script phenomenon I talk about in my book. I hope studies like this make it possible to help these moms early on, so that the loss doesn't get transmitted in this way.
So, again, I’m flipping through my sibling loss file, and I come across something amazing, in this case, a profile of Alison Malmon. When she was a freshman in college, Alison’s 22-year-old brother, Brian, who was on leave from college, committed suicide.
After his death, Alison realized that Brian, who was a star on campus, both for his accomplishments (sports editor of the paper, president of an a cappella group, and a 3.7 gpa, among other accomplishments) had been hiding a terrible secret: he’d been hearing voices for years.
“I firmly believe that Brian took his life because he didn’t know how to live with mental illness,” said Malman, in the New York Times article. In her junior year, Malmon started an organization called Open Minds, designed to raise awareness about mental illness on college campuses. At the first meeting, three people showed up. But she persevered.
In 2003, Malmon graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, incorporated her organization, now called Active Minds, and became the youngest recipient of the Tipper Gore Remember the Children Award from the National Mental Health Association. At the time of the article (2007), she’s just gotten a $100,000 grant from somewhere else to do outreach.
“The goal is a chapter on every campus, but more realistic is that we’ll have about 300 chapters in the next three years,” she said in the NYT. Check out the organization’s website at www.activeminds.org.
And fyi, for those familiar with my sibling loss lingo, this is a beautiful example of carrying. For those not familiar with it, search the blog for an explanation
I don't usually comment on books unless I've read them, for obvious reasons. But in going through my "Ted is Here" folder this a.m. (way too early this a.m.), I came across a review of the book Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner. In it, Brenner, a high profile writer for Vanity Fair, explores her relationship with her brother, Carl, who couldn't be more different. "Our relationship is like a tangled fishing line," she writes (I'm cribbing from the review, btw.) "We are defined by each other and against each other."
It's Carl's diagnosis with cancer that compells her to understand who they are as siblings better. As far as I can tell, she never comes to a conclusion. (Obviously, I need to read the book.) The review does mention the paucity of sibling research to help her understand. Brenner, and the reviewer, are right--there is a dearth of sibling research. But there was one bit of research, by Robert Plomin, PhD, a psychologist with expertise in behavior genetics, that speaks to the point of how siblings can be so different.
Plomin's take is that, though siblings do share many genes in common, they grow up in different environments--their parents are different, by dint of a few years experience, their school experiences are separate, their friends separate, their social lives different. All of these externals provoke differences in personality.
Jerry Rothman, a pscychologist who'd lost a sibling growing up and later realized it had a huge impact on who he was, explained it to me this way: "When I was growing up, my favorite meal was chicken," he said. "But my sister's was steak." The difference, he says, reflects the family's differing socioeconomic circumstances as time passed, i.e., in his early childhood, steak was too expensive to be an option. By the time his sister arrived, they family was experiencing better times. I thought it was kind of a lovely example.
(Rothman, incidentally, started one of the first centers for sibling loss, designed to help sibling mourners cope. I don't know if it still exists....it was in Chicago. Rothman, sadly, has since died.)
There was another researcher I came across, Francis Schachter, I believe her name was, who wrote a paper on sibling differentiation. Her take was that siblings become different as a survival technique--they look to fulfill different roles in the family. There's another slightly nutty researcher..oh, what is his name?...who has a similar, Darwinian, take.
At any rate, this isn't to say that there IS a ton of sibling research out there. There isn't. But there are some who have given thought to the same question that interests Brenner, and it's interesting to see what they've come up with. I really should look into what's been going on in the field lately. Meanwhile, I think I might pick up Apples and Oranges. I'm sure it'll be thought provoking......
At the least, it appears to be yet another book in the genre of sibling loss memoir--a HUGE, unrecognized, genre--albeit one with a more sharply defined angle than most. The reviewer makes mention of Carl's ashes in the last paragraph. I'm guessing he didn't make it.
First off, I love J.D. Salinger and all of his books. So I was surprised when, as my step-kids went through that particular reading phase in high school when they were assigned Catcher in the Rye, they reported that they kind of hated it. Whaaaat?
One big problem, they said, was that they couldn't really relate to Holden, the teenage, trash-talking, car-wreck of a main character. As I thought about it, it made sense. I mean, the language is dated. Holden's lifestyle--tony prep school, money, a lot of freedom, doesn't resemble the way most kids live. (Unless you watch "NYC Prep." And here's a tip: Don't.)
I ran across this article in the Times the other day, that speaks, in fact, exactly to the lack of rapport modern kids (Gee-yod that sentence makes me feel old) feel with this book and this character.
So why am I bringing it up at all? Because Catcher in the Rye was the first book I ever read that made me think someone got what it felt like to lose a sibling. I read that book not as the story of a typical disenfranchised teenager, or as the amusing romps of a rebel teen, but as the diagram of a nervous breakdown, brought on by the loss of Holden's younger brother, Ally, to leukemia.
I don't have the book in my office, or I'd quote from it. I'll post a few quotes shortly. But, really, it's heartbreaking, particularly the section from which the book's name is drawn. I never see this aspect of the book talked about, which I find odd. Maybe it's just me, looking for siblings and sibling loss. I am, of course, prone to that. But...I don't think so. Sibling loss is a theme, in fact, in every single one of Salinger's published books and short stories (God only knows what's in the pile of unpublished stories he's reputed to have written.)
At any rate, I was bummed when my step-kids weren't into the book. And I guess it sort of saddens me to see it get dated in the eyes of so many. But, for me, as a bereft sibling, it will always be relevant. Give it a read if you've got the time. And read Salinger's other stuff, too. It's well worth it.
If you poke around in sibling loss literature, one unanswered question you come across is—does losing a sibling make sibling survivors more or less likely to have children? And do they tend to have “extra” children, just in case they lose one?
FYI, I don’t have an answer to this. In my case, I simply had too much baggage to deal with to have children earlier in life. (I had my son, Henry, at 40.) But the question does interest me. As does the issue of how sibling survivors like myself parent siblings (something I have no experience with). At any rate, I’ve always got an eye peeled for references to this subject, so I was intrigued to see it brought up by Giada De Laurentiis.
I had no idea that Giada had lost a sibling. Partly, I guess, that’s because she apparently didn’t talk about it for a long time. Her story in brief: Giada is the eldest of four kids. (Her grandfather, for the record, was film producer Dino De Laurentiis.) A few years ago, her brother, Dino, died of melanoma. (Click here, to see a clip of her telling her story, and making a public service announcement on the importance of sun protection.)
I’ve seen and heard Giada, a new mother, make comments lately about almost not having children, because the thought of having to face the loss of one, after the loss of her brother, was too much to contemplate. In some references I’ve seen, it looks like her daughter was an accident, but she’s grateful it happened, because she’s not sure she would have had her otherwise. In the Redbook excerpt, below, the story is cast a little differently. Either way, the struggle of surviving siblings re: kids is in evidence.
One of my younger brothers was diagnosed with skin cancer at 29 and passed away not too long after that. We were very close. He always wanted to have children, but he didn't get to. And after he died, I remember thinking, You know, maybe there's a place in my heart for someone else other than all the people I already have in my life. I know I was very afraid.... My brother's passing made me afraid, I think because I was afraid that we could have a child and lose him or her too. I didn't know if I could go through that kind of pain with anybody else the way I did with my brother. So for a while, I was very down on the whole idea. I thought, I don't want to have any more relationships. I don't want to have anybody that close to me. But a few years later, I thought, If I never have a child, that might be the saddest thing for me.
I can totally relate. I don’t regret having a child, or having one later in life. But I think I tend to be over-protective of Henry because I do know that horrible things can and do happen to children. There’s a lost innocence that comes with childhood sibling loss. I wouldn’t trade Henry for anything, but, truthfully, I do feel terribly vulnerable in an entirely new realm now that he’s here.
Not long ago, I got off a plane in Phoenix and confronted the words “Ted is Here,” painted on a pillar in bright orange. I almost cried. Ted, I realized, was the name of a budget airline. But it was also my older brother’s name.
My Ted died of an immune disorder 27 years ago, when I was 14 and he was 17. His story, along with that of another boy in Texas, were merged in the movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” (Which my family did not authorize.)
Like most people who’ve lost someone they love, I’ve always wanted him back, or at least present, in some way. As a kid, I wished for a spectral sighting. As a young adult, I sought out psychics and mediums, one of whom once instructed me to ask Ted to give me signs that he was still present. Once, I asked Ted to show me a clown. Two days later, at a coffee shop, I looked up and realized I was sitting under a clown mural. My elation was short-lived, however. Had Ted contrived it, or had I unconsciously found myself a clown?
I’m not making a case for the supernatural here. But seeing that “Ted is Here” sign gave me the old I-see-the-clown feeling again.
This blog, which I’m launching on May 27th, the anniversary of Ted’s death, is an invitation to those who knew him—and those who didn’t—to share their thoughts and memories about the Ted they knew, or the Ted they imagined. Hearing about him, knowing that others are carrying a bit of him around with them, is another way of keeping him present. Honestly, I’d like that much better than seeing a clown.
I’ll also be posting thoughts and commentaries on siblings, sibling loss, families and grief—subjects I have, not surprisingly, become interested in. And for those of you who’ve read my book, The Empty Room, which tells my story and those of others who’ve lost siblings, I welcome your thoughts and messages.