top of page

CLAIMING THE STORY

4 minute read

CLAIMING THE STORY

"All sorrows can be borne if they can be put in a story." - ISAK DINESEN


While I was busy interviewing other people who'd lost brothers and sisters, hearing their stories and beginning to understand what they meant, I was also trying to write my own, and feeling enormously frustrated. Whenever I tried to write about Ted's illness and death from my point of view, I ended up writing his or my parents' story instead. Words flew out of me, until I typed the word "I," at which point I grew confused and uncertain. I was unable to tell my story. I felt as if I didn't have a story. Ultimately, this writing block proved to be revelatory. Though I had, with the help of years of therapy, been confidently saying this happened to me, too, on some level, I didn't believe it. At some level, I was still the fourteen-year-old standing by the side of my brother's grave, shamed into silence.


Ironically, given that I was the one writing the book, it was hearing other siblings' stories of loss that helped me to understand that I had a story, and gave me the confidence to tell it. Somehow, listening to others awakened the "I" in me. Haltingly, I began to write. My first attempts were inarticulate, guttural. The sentences had the slurry quality of a stroke victim learning to talk again. Gradually, I found my voice. I began to be able to start a sentence with the word "I" and complete it. I remembered things-scenes, conversations, people—that I didn't know I'd forgotten. And I remembered my brother in ways that I had forgotten, too-his voice, his silliness, his intensity, his anger, the look he'd give me before proceeding to bait our mother into her trademark sigh. And I saw all of this anew, from the vantage point of an adult, rather than the child I had been.


I found this process of narration, of telling with a point of view, healing beyond all expectation. It wasn't simply the catharsis of releasing long-suppressed emotion, although that did happen. It was the act of storytelling itself. I wasn't the only one to have this experience. As time passed, I began to get calls, e-mails, and letters from some of the siblings I'd interviewed, all of whom indicated that telling their stories had been a significant event. None claimed to be healed. We all knew there was no "getting over it," to borrow the phrase most often misapplied to loss. But they had come to a different place with their losses, embarked upon some sort of journey. Somehow, the process of narration had helped them move forward.


From my experience and that of the others I was hearing from, I drew a few conclusions. In acknowledging our losses, we had given ourselves permission to speak that had often been denied us by others, permission that we, on our own and in response to others' cues, had often denied ourselves. We had found our voices. And in telling our stories, we had made sense of them and claimed them as our own. It was the difference between saying, "Yes, it happened to me," and knowing it as certainly as you know anything. One was lip service, the other was profound.


Other bereft siblings before me have discovered the power of narration, most visibly, in recent years, in the form of memoir. In My Brother, for instance, Jamaica Kincaid struggles to resolve her ambivalent feelings toward her younger brother, Devon, after he's died of AIDS. "Someone I did not know I loved had died," she writes, "someone I did not want to love had died, and that dying had a closed-door quality to it, a falling-off-the-horizon quality to it." She makes it clear that she is writing, telling her story, for the express purpose of making sense of it and claiming it—recognizing specifically how his loss impacted her. "When I heard of my brother's illness and his dying," she writes, "I knew, instinctively, that to understand it, or to make an attempt at understanding his dying, and not to die with him, I would write about it."


In Phoenix: A Brother's Life, J. D. Dolan wrestles with the death of his older brother John, from whom he'd been alienated for years. In that strange reversal not uncommon to siblings, J.D. had turned out to be the successful one, while the brother he'd looked up to had struggled in his adulthood. They'd never found a way to reconnect before John suffered serious burns over 90 percent of his body in an accident. Much of the story takes place in Dolan's head, as he goes back and forth from his hotel to the hospital, and paces from the hospital lobby to John's room, trying to find a way to speak to his brother, who is barely conscious. Margaret Diehl's The Boy on the Green Bicycle is a memoir written from the perspective of the nine-year-old child Diehl was when her brother Jimmy was killed riding the bicycle he'd gotten for his fourteenth birthday.

The writing of these books was a necessity, an act of self-salvation.


Sibling loss was there in literature long before memoir became such a popular form of writing. It was just more hidden. It's quietly slipped into Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, for example, in the form of the noble heroine Helen Burns, who dies of tuberculosis contracted at the harsh boarding school in which she and the main character reside. Helen is based upon Charlotte's oldest sister, Maria, who died in just such circumstances in just such a school.


The death of Beth in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is a thinly fictionalized account of the death of Alcott's own sister, Lizzie. Henry David Thoreau wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, as a memorial to his older brother, John, with whom he was extremely close. John died, a few years after this boating trip, of lockjaw contracted from a rusty razor. The book, which celebrates the natural order of birth and death in nature, is Thoreau's attempt to come to terms with his loss.


One fundamental theme in all sibling-loss stories is disruption: It isn't supposed to happen this way. What we expect of sibling relationships is varying degrees of competition, love, loyalty, friend-ship, ambivalence, conflict, and support that waxes and wanes throughout our lives, and is available if and when we want it. When that story line is cut off abruptly, the world and all our assumptions about it get thrown in the air. It's a violation. You could say that the natural response to this kind of chaos, after the initial shock, would be to regroup, to begin to incorporate this unthinkable occurrence. What does it change? What does it mean? 

How does it recast the past? How do we reorganize the narratives of our lives in such a way as to accommodate and make sense of this death, this disruption? Do things look different, now that this has happened? Are we different?


They are necessary questions to ask after any loss. They can be difficult to answer. And they're impossible to answer if you haven't owned the loss in the first place. And this is where so many of us get frozen, stuck in ambiguity. Storytelling is a remedy for ambiguity. To tell a coherent story, you have to pose yourself as the narrator, tell with a point of view, sift through a lifetime's worth of memories, events, assumptions, and anecdotes. The woman who told me after our interview that she felt as if it had been an intervention was right. What she didn't know was that it had been one for me, as well.


Pgs. 70-73  Excerpt reprinted from "The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age" by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. Published by Scribner under license by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2007.

bottom of page