Jason and I have only been blogging for five months, which means that a large portion of you (our readers) are friends or family, and many of you knew my brother. While some of you may also have experienced the loss of a sibling, my hope is that this post will find more and more people who are coping as time passes. Because I believe there should be something for all of our readers here (both current and future), I’ve given careful consideration to how I wanted to approach the topic of losing my brother. It hasn’t been an easy conclusion to reach because to be true to myself (and to our readers) means I must ‘be real’ about certain unpleasant realities. I’ve been torn between sharing too much, which could be viewed as exploitation of my family, and too little, which could invite our readers to fill in blanks with incorrect information. Ultimately, I realized I needed to tell this story as honestly as I can, for the sake of my brother’s memory.
My baby brother. My baby brother is gone. These words have echoed in my mind for nearly eleven years, and they ring even louder now as I watch love grow between my two beautiful children. Every time they look in each others’ eyes, or hold hands while enjoying family time, it’s plain to see they are connected at the soul. LB (LB) will always be the big brother, and LG (LG) will always be the baby sister. I’ve never identified as an only child, and since my brother has been gone I’ve felt as if a piece of me is missing.
I was a precocious twenty-month-old when Mitch was born, so we grew up together. We were best friends, and we were the only two people on earth with the unique experience of being our parents’ children. I feel this loss whenever I reminisce about our childhood. It was the 1970s, which in and of itself came with a slew of harsh parenting norms, and the dysfunction of alcoholism and depression plagued our family. We were each other’s comfort through the reality of it all.
Before I go any further discussing our childhood, I want to make it absolutely clear that my parents loved us and they did the best they could with the tools they had at their disposal. My father’s alcohol addiction, my parents’ unhealthy marriage, and both of my parents’ depression could not have been changed without professional help. I love both of my parents very much, but I feel that to withhold certain truths from this story would do our entire family a disservice. I don’t wish anyone in my family any ill will, nor do I blame anyone for what happened to my brother. He chose his own path.
Mitch and I shared so many fun childhood memories. We were lucky enough to live in a neighborhood full of young families, and we spent most non-school days playing outside with the other kids. In the summer, we would often go on long family camping trips, which are still some of my fondest memories from those years. On those trips we would fish, swim, and play at the campground park together.
Back at home (on rainy days some time in the early 80s), we went through a “Grease” period when we would dress up like Danny and Sandy (styling Mitch’s greaser hair was my favorite part). I really wish I had a picture. I should note that in the innocence of childhood, we didn’t even consider the fact that Mitch and I were siblings and Danny and Sandy were a romantically involved couple. That said, I promise nothing weird happened.
Every Christmas morning, Mitch would come into my bedroom before dawn and we’d excitedly speculate about what Santa had left for us. Like many families, our parents’ rule was that we weren’t allowed to go out to the tree until they woke up. And like many children, one of us would be the “scout” and report back about what we saw. We never admitted our annual reconnaissance missions, but becoming a parent has made me realize that they probably always knew. All of these are the happy times with my brother that I will always hold near and dear to my heart.
Behind closed doors, there was a different dynamic. It was normal in our family to see my father drunk. It was normal in our family to hear my father disrespect my mother. In our house, there was more turmoil than calm as the years passed. When I was eleven and Mitch was nine, my mom started traveling for her career and would go on several overnight business trips a year. While she was away, Mitch and I would often be home alone in the evenings because it was a common ritual for my dad to stop for a drink at the bar after work. I felt the responsibility of a third parent for Mitch during those times, and I did my best to get dinner on the table and help him feel safe.
It was during those years that my parents’ relationship was reaching a tipping point, which intensified their depressive tendencies and my dad’s drinking habit. When mom and dad were both at home, there was constant tension and they would frequently argue. While their disagreements were rarely physical, they were scary, leaving Mitch and I huddled silently together to avoid getting caught in the middle. My mind has blocked out many of the details from our childhood years, but there are a few major events that stand out like painful beacons in the middle of a stormy sea (and I shall respectfully keep them to myself).
We were both spanked as children, which was the norm in those times (alcohol only made it worse). Intimidation and shaming were also relatively common disciplinary practices back then, and we both had our share. I was disciplined far less than my brother, because I morphed myself into the “perfect” child (mainly to avoid punishment), and Mitch was what we would call “willful” or “spirited” today. Which is to say that he was a sensitive child, and he was never taught how to deal with his emotions. The fact that our generation had overarching societal pressures for boys to suppress their emotions and “be manly” also complicated matters. I know Mitch bore the brunt of it, and eventually he developed an “I don’t care” attitude which he carried into adulthood.
For about eight months in 1987, our parents went through the process of separation and, ultimately, were divorced just after Mitch turned twelve (and I was not quite fourteen). During that time, our dad moved in and out of the house while our parents made several attempts at reconciliation. Mitch and I had so much hope that our parents could work it out. It was a hard time for all of us, but it was particularly difficult for Mitch. He was always such a tender person, and was often overwhelmed by his feelings. (He was very much like our dad in that way.)
After our parents split, we only saw our dad every other weekend. The rest of the time, we lived with our mom. Life slowly but surely became less chaotic in our house, and both of our parents’ emotional wounds started to heal. My parents still argued, mainly about how we should be parented, but at least it (usually) wasn’t in our presence. As an adult, I realize that their divorce was the absolute best thing for all of us. They were both happier people after the dust settled, and we were no longer subjected to the nastiness of a sick marriage.
During the single-parent-home years, my mom had to work two jobs to make ends meet, and we were impressionable teens. We were home alone much of the time, which meant we had more freedom than we probably should have. We both tested the boundaries, but Mitch was always pushing beyond the limits (probably due to his spirited personality) and my mom struggled to keep him reigned in. This is an area my parents fought a lot about, because my dad thought my mom was too soft, and my mom thought my dad was too hard.
Although Mitch was very smart, he struggled in school and people would say things to him like “why can’t you be more like your sister?” Knowing that others (family, teachers, etc.) used our differences to try and “motivate” him still brings me great sadness. I know how much those words hurt him, and it’s only one of many reasons there was a wedge driven between us before he died. Because of this, I am extra mindful as I parent my children. I don’t ever want to play favorites, or use one’s successes to harm the other. From what I understand, the book “Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too” by Adele Faber is a wonderful guide to help parents in this regard.
People knew Mitch was the “life of the party”, but I’m not sure many people knew how much self-loathing and deep sorrow was bubbling under the surface. On the outside, he had a bold personality and an infectious laugh. He was incredibly kind and would give anyone the shirt off his back if they needed it. He was a fierce friend, and would stand up for what he thought was right. He was the guy that everyone knew (and almost everyone loved). He was also the guy that everyone wanted to help, because he had so much potential and needed so much love.
By the time Mitch was eighteen, he had already become addicted to alcohol and had several run-ins with the law. I believe he had so much pain inside, and wanted so badly to drown it out. To not be present to experience that pain. My mom showered Mitch with lots of love. My dad’s approach was as you’d expect from fathers of his generation, falling back on physical and mental intimidation tactics intended to “motivate.” In their hearts, both of my parents were doing what they thought was best because they loved their son. Mitch went to countless hours of addiction counseling and spent some time in an inpatient alcohol treatment center, but it was never enough. He had no desire, nor the intention to recover from his alcohol addiction.
It was during these years, as I saw my brother misbehaving, that our relationship changed. We grew apart. I was so frustrated that he couldn’t just “get his shit together”. I was so angry at him for the worry he caused our mom, and that he would often take advantage of her love and kindness. I didn’t fully understand the grip his addiction had on him, or how little self-worth he had. His bucket was empty, and he wasn’t getting positive feedback from anyone except my mom and a few close friends. Throughout his twenties, Mitch continued on his path of destruction. He found it difficult to keep a job, and had several failed romantic relationships. In other words, he never really “got his shit together” by the time he died at age twenty-nine.
Mitch died in a snowmobile accident on the night of December 26, 2004. He had been riding, under the influence of alcohol, on a frozen lake with his best friend, when they (one by one) hit a wire fence that surrounded a section of thin ice. The accident was caused partly by inadequate markings on the fence (which wasn’t even visible during the day), and partly by poor choices. They were both gone instantly. They didn’t suffer.
I will never forget that middle of the night call from my mom, who delivered the horrific news that her baby boy was gone, or having to relay that news to my dad. And now that I’m a parent, I’m filled with even more grief for the pain they’ve had to endure. While it’s been painful enough to lose a sibling, no one should ever have to feel the pain of losing a child. It changed them.
Over the next year I grieved the loss of my brother in my own way. I was filled with so much guilt for not being a better sister. I knew I would never be able to repair our relationship, or get a second chance to become close to my brother again. I had to cope with the guilt, and the anger I still felt toward him for throwing his life away. I chose to go through therapy for family members of those struggling with addiction. Through that process, I was able to forgive Mitch for who he was and his choices, and myself for who I am and my choices. I also took up long distance running (for the first time in my life), and ran a half-marathon in his honor. These things helped, but only time has truly healed the wound of losing my brother.
All families have a different story, and all sibling relationships are unique. There is no one size fits all way of grieving the loss of a loved one. If you’ve lost a sibling, you have my deepest condolences. I know what it’s like to have to walk away from families reminiscing, or look at the calendar to realize the date of my brother’s death is approaching. I know all too well the feeling that the person who knew me as only a brother can, the person who bore witness to my life, is gone forever. If you’re like me, and don’t have any other siblings, I understand you may feel the pressure of caring for your aging parents alone.
While it’s incredibly sad that Mitch is gone, there are a few positives that have come out of losing my brother. On Mitch’s birthday, every year since his death, I’ve been able to spend time with both of my parents (at the same time). Out of this tragedy, we’ve formed a new ritual of celebrating Mitch’s life that has brought healing to my family. Another positive is that I’ve learned a lot about myself, and have made peace with the circumstances surrounding our unstable childhood. I’m able to take what I’ve learned, and make different choices for parenting my own children.
As I mentioned before, becoming a mother of two children has me thinking more often of my brother. I’m sad that my kids will never know their uncle, so I’m keeping him alive in stories (those which are age-appropriate) and by looking at pictures. This week (on August 22nd, 2015), Mitch would have celebrated his 40th birthday. I like to think that if he was still living, he would’ve been able to turn his life around. I like to believe he would have finally found happiness. I know he would’ve been a kick ass uncle. Rest well, baby brother. I’ll love you always.