An inside look at traumatic sibling loss with guest expert Dr. Heidi Horsley, professor of Traumatic Loss During Childhood at Columbia University, on the 35th anniversary of her brother’s death at age 17 from a car crash.
When I started this, I promised myself I would be open and honest. My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years ago. We received the call one night at 2 a.m. that she had passed, and was asked to come to her apartment. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t think this through. When my wife Gloria and I walked into the apartment, there was my mom passed away on a hospital bed. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that was the way it would be, but I didn’t.
During my mom’s funeral home setting, I don’t recall seeing her in the casket. All I remember is seeing her as I entered her apartment. I talked to Gloria about it and said, “Please, I never want to be put in that situation again.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly how I found my wife Gloria—passed away in our bed. I cannot get that out of my head. The person I loved more than anything passed away. This sticks with me to this day.
One night when I was drinking by myself at home, I opened a bottle of liquor to go along with my beer. After finishing the bottle, I went in to our bedroom, sat on the bed, and thought about how I would never get that sight out of my head, and tried to think how I could. I came to the decision that the only way to get it out of my head was to commit suicide.
I grabbed the gun and the bullets, and then loaded the gun. I decided I didn’t have to write a note, because I would be found on the bed where my wife died and it would be self-explanatory. I thought all my kids are big enough, they all have kids, and they don’t need me anymore. Then I thought of who would find me. The one person who checks on me is my stepdaughter Alecia, and she has a key. So Alecia and Heather would be the ones who find me.
I realize that drunks aren’t smart but I was thinking, Chuck, you can’t handle finding Gloria passed away, and here you’re going to run from your problem and pass it on to the two girls.
Needless to say, I don’t really drink anymore. Alecia asked me to get the gun out of the house, and I did. I will just deal with this the best I can.
Written by Chuck Andreas. Chuck’s wife Gloria died unexpectedly from heart disease in 2014. Read his full story in Grief Diaries: Through the Eyes of Men.
There is a certain type of person who, when he or she walks into a room, the atmosphere changes. It suddenly becomes more vibrant and exciting. It’s the type of person you know you can count on—the type of person who makes you feel deeply loved, and the type of person whose energy and laugh are contagious. That was Hannah.
She was one of my best friends and also my roommate. We met each other in south Florida and quickly connected, so moving into an apartment together was the perfect fit. Everyone’s initial response to seeing a picture of Hannah was how beautiful she was. She was incredibly beautiful, yes, but the most beautiful thing about her was her heart. She lived passionately, loved deeply, and had a lively spirit. We always had fun together, and I have precious memories of our many spontaneous adventures.
The deep authenticity in our friendship was what meant the most to me. We did life together. Neither of us had family in Florida, so we were each other’s family. Hannah was a truly loyal and supportive friend and made me feel so important and loved. She embodied confidence and joy.
What most people didn’t know, however, was how much Hannah struggled with insecurity over her potential, her personality, her worth, her relationships and her future. I never understood why she felt so self-conscious; she was such a lovable, smart, fun and valuable girl. I’ll never be able to understand exactly how it felt to be in her head but from talks we had, I knew Hannah was struggling to feel hopeful about her ability to overcome the internal battles in her mind and to succeed at all the dreams she had for her life. Hannah had been going through a particularly rough patch when she took her life. Her insecurities were affecting her relationships, she doubted her potential in pursuing a career in nursing, and she felt stressed out handling the responsibilities of life on top of her emotional battles.
A few days before her death, Hannah came home crying and told me she had been fired from the job she loved. Other events that weekend had been extremely tough as well. On the evening of May 5, I was sitting at a restaurant when I got a call from her mother, who lives out of state. She was concerned about Hannah’s well-being and asked if I had talked to Hannah that day. I hadn’t been home and hadn’t talked to her, so when I got off the phone with her mom, I called her. Hannah was crying and obviously in distress when she answered, so I told her I would meet up with her and help her figure out how to get through whatever was going on. I needed to close my check at the restaurant, so I told Hannah I would call her right back to figure out where we should meet. But when I called back shortly after, she didn’t answer. You know that bad gut feeling you sometimes get in a certain situation? I felt that, so I went looking for her. I drove around for hours, looking everywhere I could think of where Hannah might be, but had no luck. When it got late and I ran out of ideas, I finally had to return to our apartment for the night. I hoped maybe Hannah had fallen asleep at a coworker’s house or somewhere similar.
The next morning, her mother called me at 8 a.m. to tell me that Hannah had taken her life shortly after I’d spoken to her. She was at her boyfriend’s apartment and was found that night by his roommate. The police contacted Hannah’s parents shortly after. I’ll never forget that phone call from her mother. I’ll never forget the way my phone slipped out of my hand as I leaned on a chair for support, shaking and struggling to breathe. My thoughts were racing, yet the only thought that was clear was, “This isn’t real. This can’t be happening.” I remember laying on the floor at one point, because the solidity of the floor was the only sense of stability I could find in that moment. I remember the gut-wrenching sobs, sometimes so deep that there were moments no sound even came out of my mouth.
Losing someone to suicide forever alters your life and who you are. Hannah’s death has changed my perspective on life, my priorities, my relationships, my routine, and my heart. Some changes are good, while some have felt damaging. I have hope that the changes that currently feel negative will be redeemed and healed as my journey continues. Because Hannah was part of my daily life and one of my best friends, I think I took too many moments with her for granted, because I assumed we had a lifetime of moments ahead of us. I didn’t realize just how deeply my life was intertwined with hers until she was ripped away from it, and I found myself left with the sharp, jagged edges around a crater where her presence once was.
I was forced to start a new chapter in life, even though I hadn’t finished writing the one before. I’ve stood on wobbly feet the past year, looking at a new chapter I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t want, trying to figure out exactly how it has changed me and how to find solid ground again. I’ve grappled with the concept of closure and wondered if it’s even possible.
Experiencing this level of grief itself has changed me forever. I’ve learned that grief isn’t a coat you put on and then take off once you feel warm again. In a way, you have to absorb grief. It’s been a process of acceptance and a process of change and adjustment for me. It has become a part of me, not in the sense that it is my identity, but in the sense that it has redefined the person I am.
I ask myself exactly how Hannah’s death has changed me, but I honestly don’t think I fully know yet. I know that time will reveal more, but for now there are a few things I do know. I know that since Hannah died, I have a deeper level of compassion, love, and concern over the well-being of others than I ever did before. I’ve become more sensitive and educated in how to support people in ways that will be most helpful to them. I’ve found a deep desire to make a difference, to stand up for those who suffer silently and could too easily slip under the radar. I’ve found a voice to advocate for those who suffer from mental illness. I want to be a light in the darkness. And although Hannah’s death itself will never be something I view as “good,” I do know that the qualities I’ve gained are good gifts, because they make me a stronger, more loving and more dependable person. And I am grateful for that.
Written by Emily Barnhardt. Emily’s best friend and roommate, Hannah, died in 2014 at age 20. Emily’s full story is available in Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss by Suicide
Grief…….you never know when the emotions and deep aching wounds will surface. They are always there, sometimes lingering just below, just far enough down that you are able to keep the tears from falling and your breath from catching in your throat. But it is there.
Tonight while coming home from work, I drove by the ponds where Brandon used to hang out, and I thought to myself, he is 22 now, he wouldn’t be hanging out there anymore. None of his friends hang out there anymore. They are all grown up, in love, making a different life for themselves with their mates, they all have full time jobs. And I thought my Brandon didn’t get to get any older, he will forever be 17. He wasn’t able to build a different life. He won’t ever find his woman for life, or have kids….he never got to mature. I don’t even know what he would look like today at more than 22 years old.
Driving by the ponds caused these thoughts and emotions, and I am still crying more than 5 hours later. Brandon, how I wish you were 22 years old. How I wish you were with your lady for life, having that career you dreamed of, doing the things you planned. How I wish I knew what you would look like today. Would your voice be deeper, your laughter richer, your hugs tighter? Would you be a father? You always loved kids. And I think, can I do this without you Brandon? How can I live without you? How can I live, when you aren’t?
God, I miss you, Brandon.
Written by Kim Thomas. Her 17-year-old son Brandon was killed by a drunk driver outside Calgary, Canada, in December 2012. She shared her story in Grief Diaries: Victim Impact Statement.
You say it’s time for me to move on in my grief. Perhaps you’re right, or perhaps you just don’t realize what you’re asking. So why don’t you try this little exercise and maybe it will help you get a better perspective on what I am going through.
To make this really hit home for you it should be practiced for at least 24 hours. The longer the better; but, we do not have that long, so we will do it for 10 minutes. Don’t blow this off as a stupid idea. It works along the same lines as blindfolding yourself to experience being without sight.
First of all, think about your child. I want you to try to imagine the worst thing in the world….. that your beloved child died. Whatever age or stage of development, whether he or she lives with you or not, just imagine you won’t ever see that child on earth again. Let me explain to you the reality…try to imagine, if you can, never seeing your child again, never hearing his/her laugh, never hearing the sound of their voice, never smelling the scent you have come to recognize as your child…. never hearing them say “I love you”…nothing – just silence, emptiness…..Now imagine never seeing your child’s smile, never seeing him upset or happy, never watching him sleep…missing them so much that you are twisted up inside and the pain stays with you 24/7. You smell their pillow, their clothes, you look at his pictures and can only cry – what happened, why?.. You have never felt longing like this in your life! Longing to hear his voice, to see his face again,…and to know deep in your soul you cannot fix this. Now, imagine every single thing that used to give you joy and pleasure turns into hurt and despair overnight. Not a gradual thing, but going from pleasure to hurt, from happiness to sadness, from peace to no peace, changing overnight. Every thing you loved now hurts like hell…
For example: music. I used to be a band director. Music was a big part of my life. Now it’s hard for me to listen to it It sears me like a red hot knife with the pain of losing my child, it cuts me wide open.. especially rap music……my son loved rap music. Almost every song reminds me of the void in my life without my child. I am not unique in that pain – if you lost a child you would know. That is just one little example of how your life is affected by the loss of your child. Just ONE example!
Now imagine calling all your family and friends to tell them your child died.
Next, go to a funeral home and discuss caskets or cremation, headstone, burial plots, etc. Pick out a favorite outfit for your child to be buried in and the flowers that lay at the alter. Sit down and write out the obituary for the newspaper, pick out the music to be played at their memorial and picking out pictures of them to put around the funeral home. Get in his closet of his room and hold onto his clothes that he wore and cry until there are no more tears. Then repeat this until you think you’re losing your mind and your gut is wrenching.
If you made it through that part you are ready for the next step.
As good parents, we were always able to fix things or make things better for our children.. this we cannot fix, we cannot make it better. So; on top of everything else you are feeling, you also feel helplessness…out of control hopelessness…and this is universal. Every parent that truly loves their child will feel this. Are you starting to imagine now how it feels?
Just think you are doing this exercise for only 10 minutes, imagine . . . really imagine, feeling this way 24/7, day after day, month after month, year after year and no matter what you are doing or who you are talking to; memories of your child play over and over in your mind. Your child when he was a baby, a laughing happy little boy, a handsome young teen, a wonderful young man/ woman and it always plays in your head and you do not want to forget even a single second of your beautiful child’s life . . . but; that is a fear you have. You fear that as time passes, you will start to forget . . . so now, please add FEAR to the list of emotions. This is what it really feels like. A part of you has died…. don’t just read the words, FEEL them—DIED . . . gone forever . . . a real, beautiful, living part of you has died… and you are still living. Left behind to try to pick up the pieces of your shattered life and not having a clue where to even begin. No wonder a high percentage of marriages break up, parents have breakdowns, turn to alcohol, drugs or a destructive way of life.
During all of this, remember that the world hasn’t stopped. If you have a job, you will have to return to it. The power company and everyone else still wants their payment each month. You may have doctor’s bills, ambulance bills, and attorney fees if an accident was involved. If your child died at the hands of another, there will be a trial and publicity.
If you were blessed to have other children, you will have to deal with their grief as well as your own. They will still have homework, tests, reports, projects and the class bully. You feel the loss with every thought, every emotion. The loss bleeds into every aspect of your life. Even with your other children . . . you still love your other children just as much as always but, as hard as it is . . . even they hurt you now because when you see them, you feel the LOSS, the loss of the child who died . . . not being with their siblings. It doesn’t fit. There is a piece missing. Your whole life doesn’t fit anymore. Everything that felt right now feels wrong. And of course there is always the missing, the horrible gut wrenching, out of your control . . . MISSING . . .
Next comes the firsts. First birthday without them. First anniversary of death and at first, you count the days, weeks, and months since they passed. Your first Christmas without them, etc. When everyone is singing tra-la-la and jingle bells, you won’t be. Your heart will be too heavy. The hurt will be so intense you will marvel that you can get out of bed each morning. Every morning when you take your other children to school you’ll be reminded that you AREN’T taking one too. You’ll see their friends going on with their lives and it will cut you to the quick. When they all graduate from kindergarten, middle school, high school . . . your child won’t. When you start getting wedding invitations in the mail for these other children, you’ll be reminded again of your loss.
Don’t forget that when you go shopping; you’ll see things that you wanted to buy for your deceased child and many times you will still buy them anyway. You’ll see places the two of you USED to go and sometimes sit in the parking lot and remember that special day.
At home when you prepare a favorite meal of the child who is gone; it won’t taste the same to you. The pictures, cards they made for you or sent you, the toys and other possessions of your child . . . will be both harmful . . . and helpful. They are a link to the past, a way to remember more about what you’ve lost and at the same time; they are a link to the past and a way to remember more about what you’ve lost.
Remember that family portrait you were always so proud of? Well, it will take on a whole new meaning now.
A part of you does not exist anymore and it is scary as hell. That is why they say the loss of a child is like no other loss—you cannot compare it to another loss. With other losses you grieve and you are of course sad, but when your child dies, a part of you ceases to exist. Gone just like that. Gone. No warning, JUST GONE.
And the life that you knew, the things you always felt, the things in your life that made sense, that you held on to, that make up who you are—are gone! That is why when parents who have lost children hear, “I want the old you back,” or “It’s been a year (a month, 6 months-whatever), don’t you feel better yet?” or “You are doing this to yourself, you’re making it harder on yourself,” or “Grief can become a selfish thing, you know,” we can only shake our heads and feel sadness and hopelessness, because there is no way our lives will ever be like it was when our child was alive. No wonder bereaved parents isolate themselves; we are just trying to hold on.
So, were you able to imagine for 10 minutes what it must feel like? Even 2 minutes is too long to imagine the unimaginable, to feel the pain. I would not wish this on anyone. But did you get a sense of how life-changing it is? Imagine you feeling this way 24/7 without getting event a moment of relief from it!
Now, go on and put in your favorite CD to listen to, enjoy the music. Go home and hug your child. Listen to them laugh, watch them smile, smell the scent that you know is his or her and please do not tell me how I should feel or that I am holding onto this. I know that my friends/family must be tired of watching me go through this, because if you haven’t lost a beloved child of yours, you haven’t got a clue.
When you hear these words “The presence of his absence is everywhere,” will you finally understand?
Didn’t mean to ask too much of you. Believe it or not, I could write dozens of things for you to imagine. Fortunately for you, it’s only an exercise. But I live it every day.
IF you have had the guts to stick it out to here, remember that this was just a little exercise. I don’t think you will be so quick to utter those words now. Not if you really did imagine.
In the memory of my son, Crawford Alan Carnahan
August 21,1988 to May 11, 2007
If I had to describe Kevin with one word, it would be dedicated. And I would use that word in many different ways. He was dedicated to his job, and his future. Kevin did have a tough time finding his passion and what he wanted to do with his life for a couple of years. However, when he found it, he was unstoppable.
Kevin’s passion for music was indescribable. He was constantly working on it, talking about it, and promoting it. He was so determined to make a future out of it that he would do anything to get there. He even dedicated an entire summer to doing chores and yardwork for our grandmother to make the money to buy his own keyboard.
While working on his music, Kevin had a job as a busboy. To most, this would be a low-end lame job some see as shameful or not really something to talk about. Not Kevin. He talked about that place as if he worked for the president of the United States. He loved his job—I’m not sure the word love is even a strong enough to describe it. He was always so excited to go to work, bus tables, make friends, and get to know the customers. I fondly remember him “complaining” that he had to go to work, but he always had his signature smirk when getting ready to leave. We never found out what was so special about that restaurant, but seeing him happy with something so simple was all that mattered. He was so easily excitable and driven, and they were two of my favorite characteristics about him.
Kevin was also very dedicated to his family and his friends. I know it is pretty typical for someone to say that his or her loved one who passed was the best person there was, and in my case I say it with confidence. Kevin was so loving, so understanding, and so patient. He wasn’t perfect, but he was as close as it gets. There were many people who wouldn’t be given a second glance by most, but he never gave up on them. A lot of people gave up on me, but Kevin never left my side. I am forever grateful to him.
Kevin spent two years studying at Florida State University in Tallahassee (pursuing a music degree, of course). He loved the school, the Seminoles, the city, the atmosphere. If it was related to FSU, he was all about it. He spent one year as president of Epsilon Sigma Alpha, which is a co-ed service fraternity. He was constantly attending and running community service events, raising money, supporting the homeless, and doing all kinds of incredible things that the average person would never do.
When we were younger, I was Kevin’s “protector.” Though I was sixteen months younger, I took the older sister role. He was very shy, sensitive, and quiet. My parents even had Kevin tested for autism, but doctors weren’t able to diagnose him with it.
I was always so worried about him, even while we were in college together. However, as soon as he left high school he grew into his own and became a confident, strong man who I hadn’t known before. His successes were incredible in the short time he was at FSU, and he worked so incredibly hard towards his dreams. Unfortunately, Kevin didn’t get into the music program at FSU for reasons we’ll never know. We all knew how heartbroken he was, but again he made something great out of it. He moved home to southern Florida and moved in with our brother, Jeffrey. This is when he began working as a busboy, and really started focusing on his music. While most people would have given up on their passion after that kind of rejection, Kevin used it to fuel himself to work even harder. Every single day he worked on his music, made money on the side, and had that big grin on his face no matter what life threw at him.
On the weekend of September 6, 2015, Kevin and a few friends traveled up to Florida State to spend Labor Day weekend with friends. He was so excited to see everyone again, to attend a football game, and to have fun in his favorite city. That Sunday night, Kevin and his three friends, Morgan, Vincenzo, and Niko, left the friend’s apartment to go get food. What they didn’t know was that someone they never met made the selfish, disgusting decision to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking too much.
I was at my new apartment in Gainesville with friends. I had just been on the phone with my mom and we hung up. She called back not even five minutes later, and I will never forget her words.
“Shannon. There was an accident.”
“In Tallahassee. Kevin was in the car, I don’t know who else. I’m on the way to the hospital, apparently it’s not good.”
My roommates drove me the two hours to Tallahassee. During the drive I kept frantically calling my mom, my dad, my brother, hoping for answers. I texted Kevin, telling him I would be there soon. I had plans to buy him his favorite candy and a stupid little teddy bear, thinking he would be hospitalized for a while.
He never made it to the hospital.
After the longest ride of my life, I jumped out of the car before it even came to a stop. I threw open the emergency room door, screaming at the first person I saw, “My brother was in an accident! Where is he?”
“Who’s your brother?”
I should’ve known then by the look on the police officer’s face. His look was filled with nothing but guilt and heartbreak. I refused to believe it.
I thought to myself, okay, he’s probably unconscious and injured. I need to prepare myself to see him hooked up to machines.
Instead, I was taken to one of those family counseling rooms, the kind nobody wants to go into. You know the ones—you see it in the movies when someone dies. But my brother wasn’t dead. Why is he bringing me in here?
I was greeted by some random woman, and my mother. She looked lifeless. My mother, who was always so happy to see me with sunshine pouring out of her eyes, wasn’t there.
She sat me down and shut the door. I still didn’t want to believe what was coming.
Nothing but screaming.
Were they my screams? My mom’s?
My face was soaking wet. My tears combined with those from my mother—a mother who had just lost her child.
It wasn’t just my brother and friends who died that day. My life ended too.
At 9:15 p.m. on Sunday, September 6, 2015, Kevin and his two friends, Vincenzo and Morgan, were all killed by a drunk driver. And that is when our world stopped.
Written by Shannon Boos. Excerpt from Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Sibling. Shannon’s 21-year-old brother Kevin was killed by two drunk drivers in 2015.