For our family, the trauma was shattering. I was 28 and it was my first experience of death. Flung into an abyss of grief, I was unable to help anyone, let alone our sole surviving son.
Rob cut a lonely figure hovering around the wilting floral arrangements while adults huddled over endless mugs of tea. Occasionally, I’d surface long enough to peer into his young face. He’d suffered the brunt of it, witnessing his brother’s death.
Yet while the rest of us wept and wailed, Rob seemed unnervingly calm. Whenever I tried to access his emotional state, he reported what had happened in the steady tone of a newsreader. Sam had looked like a cowboy, he said, lying on the road with red string coiling out of his mouth. Rob (now a middle-aged father of two) corrected me on that recently. Apparently, the blood was more like a strand of wool, sticky and visceral.
Desperate to help little Rob, I scoured the library, but this was 1983. The only book I could find was Elisabeth Kubler Ross and her five stages of grief. We seemed to be enduring most of them simultaneously – denial, anger, bargaining, depression. The only one I couldn’t identify with was acceptance. As for Rob, I could find no words to help him encompass his brother’s death.
A child who loses both parents is called an orphan. A woman whose husband dies is identified as a widow. There’s no name for a child who loses a sibling, nor indeed the grieving parent. I believe this lack of acknowledgment stems back to society’s unwillingness to address the queasy subject of a small white coffin. This taboo doesn’t stop the tragedy of childhood mortality, however, and it helps nobody.
Rob refused to sleep in the room he’d shared with Sam. We moved his mattress to the floor in our bedroom. He woke several times a night screaming a monster was chasing him. During daylight hours, he washed his hands until they were raw.
Rob was terrified of going back to school a brother-less freak.
When Sam and Rob had played cowboys, the slain rancher always stood up and ran to the next hideout. This real death was shocking, bewildering in its finality. Especially for a kid. Sam had died during the summer holidays. Rob was terrified of going back to school a brother-less freak. He dreaded being teased by creeped-out peers who might think fatality was contagious. Or, worse, ignored.
Adults were no better, often closing down and talking in hushed tones when Rob walked into a room. They used euphemisms like “passed away” or “gone to a better place”. The anguish of losing a brother must have been intensified by this outlandish adult behaviour. I’ve since had conversations with countless adults carrying emotional wounds from the loss of a brother or sister when they were younger.
Looking back, I realise that aside from Sam, the thing we lacked most during that traumatic time was hope. Life as we knew it was over. Sometimes, it seemed the quickest solution for me would be a bottle of sleeping pills. But when I saw how courageously Rob stepped into each day, I was shamed into survival.
Hope can appear in unexpected forms. For us, it was the arrival of a small black kitten. A few weeks before he died, Sam had picked out a scruffy runt and named her Cleo. When Cleo was delivered to our doorstep soon after the funeral, there was an immediate change in Rob. Cat and boy formed a bond that lasted nearly 24 years.
Though adults try to protect children from death, they often turn a blind eye to the violence and murder that pours out of television screens in front of kids every night. The lack of dialogue makes death even more scary and unnatural. Young people are left with no emotional tools to confront loss, as they inevitably will have to.
Every adult hopes a child’s first experience of grief will be a “comfortable” one, like a pet or grandparent. But that’s not always the way life unfolds.
We need to demystify death and assure kids that no matter how bad things are now, they will laugh again and find joy in life.
Helen Brown is the author of Cleo and Rob.