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The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age

The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age - Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn The author's older brother was the one of two boys described as the boy in the bubble in the 80's. Elizabeth was 14 in 1980 when her brother Ted died of an immune deficiency disease after an 8 year illness. When Elizabeth decides to write about her experience and try to piece together exactly what happened, she is surprised at the dearth of writing and research on sibling death. As a journalist seeking experts in the field, she instead finds others like herself, seeking to tell and understand their stories. "What I didn't expect was that the ongoing dialogue between myself and other bereft siblings would have a profound impact on my own story. I thought I had done all of the hard work of grieving and understanding my brother's death before I started this book. It wasn't true. After I'd listen to someone tell his or her own story, I'd sometimes end up musing about some aspect of my own that I hadn't realized or gotten to yet. It was often painful, and, equally as often, enlightening. My story, and my understanding of it, is different from when I started. I've told it, as best I can at this point in my life, in a way that follows the pattern of how I believe the loss of a sibling must be explored and integrated in order for healing to occur. By using the word "healing" I do not mean that the sense of loss of a sibling ever goes away, or that the sibling is dismissed as an important person in your life. I mean that the disabling grief is over, and we find a way to weave the lost brother or sister into our lives and go on." p9-10.Elizabeth goes through the process of trying to put her story together, repiecing facts, talking to her parents, doctors, looking at the medical records. Over time, more memories come back to her.Ambiguous loss. The younger the person was when he lost a brother or sister, the greater the ambiguity of the loss, the more frozen he tended to be. Regardless of age, the result in the majority of cases, was this: The loss hadn't been recognized, and the siblings hadn't grieved. Even children born after an older sibling has already died can be affected by the loss. The parents of these people are changed for having experienced the loss. The size, rules, and values of the family of the surviving siblings grow up in are shaped by the loss, too. These siblings feel the absence of this person, but grapple with whether it is their loss to claim. They often crave information about the lost sibling, but feel they don't have the right to ask. Joanna Fanos, PhD, began looking into sibling loss in the early eighties. . . Her conclusions were very much like Rosen's: though some siblings had received enough support to get through, they were the exception. The norm tended to be that the loss often wasn't acknowledged by others, families were unable to see their surviving children's grief, and the grief became a chronic condition that undermined the survivors' lives for decades. Re-forming an identity chapter. Explores the fact that much of a child's identity is initially formed in reaction or against the backdrop of a sibling's personality. "Siblings are connected by their differences." She lists some famous siblings who took on the role of a sibling that died: Val Kilmer, the actor fulfilled the dream of his younger brother who drowned when they were teens. Akira Kurosawa's older brother committed suicide, and Akira went on to become the director that his brother planned to be. Lynyrd Skynyrd was disbanded after Ronnie Van Zant died, but then his brother Johnny took over and the band reformed. Sibling-loss literature tends to refer to this phenomenon as "living for two". But Elizabeth sees it more in the total family context, as it is often the parents' dreams for one, that get transferred or taken on by a surviving sibling. "My brother is now long gone. I am older, I work. I have significant relationships outside the family I started in. there are different expectations of me now. But I still carry his imprint. Every sensory signal sent to my brain zips through nerve fibers, through my conscious and unconscious mind via circuitry soldered while Ted was still alive. I couldn't change that now if I wanted to." p. 128"Carrying" We carry our siblings forward. in order not to leave part of ourselves frozen, unaged, in time. Because siblings were meant to be parallel travelers, in life's longest relationship. In order for us to go forward with our own lives, whole, unhampered by guilt at having been the ones chosen to survive. A person she interviews describes: "For the first 14 years of my life, his life was my greatest influence, and for the past 15 years, his death has been my greatest influence. I'll never get over it. He is the core of me. His loss is the core of me. The day I get over it is the day I'm dead." p.134There is also a chapter on twin loss. An extensive bibliography of sibling loss memoirs and other works on siblings. This is a book to read after the initial work of grieving is done. A book of reflection not just on sibling loss, but on the role of siblings in our lives. Together with Surviving the Death of an Adult Sibling, an essential read for adult sibling loss.