Losing a sibling as a teen changed my feelings about parenthood

Guest post by Annie Oakley

Photo by Darren Wilkinson, used under Creative Commons license.
My thoughts about parenting have generally existed in a continuum that ranges from, “I definitely don’t want kids” to “Kids seem like this fantasy thing” all the way to “If I have kids, I’ll do this …” But nowhere in those ricocheting and often short-lived conceptions of potential parenting has there ever been a moment where I’ve thought, “Yes, I’ll have kids.” Mostly, I’ve been wading about in the gray for a long time. I now realize a great deal of my ambivalence stems from my most well-known observations of parenting: a lifetime spent watching my own amazing, instinctive, and infinitely nurturing mother raise her two children… and then watching her lose and grieve one.

I have seen motherhood at its finest, and seen it suffer through the worst, and I know the consequences of that experience are part of my own smudgy, undefined thinking about the subject and the choice.

When your sibling dies, you goes through a radical bisecting of reality: you’re a half of a pair, and the other half is no more. The core of your world, your familial unit, is fragmented. The remnants are morphed and scattered. The reality of your parents as humans becomes glaring; you witness their pain through the most horrific, tragic experience we can endure.

Watching your own mother experience the sudden death of her child is an intensely vivid and ongoing lesson about the worst possible experience of parenthood, and it’s an experience that continues indefinitely.

I listened to the horror of two people in their dining room, experiencing the agony of losing their child, and I began the struggle of losing my brother.

I had three days left until seventeen and my brother was two months from twenty when, in the middle of an April night, my brother died in a field two miles from our house. I will always remember the sequence of events that led to me knowing that my brother was dead: the phone ringing, my parents saying that there was an accident and they didn’t know what happened, them leaving to check on things (I do not know why, but the neighbors whose land his truck had flipped onto were the ones to call, and this is what they told them). My parents came home, the front door shut, and I heard my mother collapse with the most soul-wrenching sound that a human can emit. Still unmoving in my bed, I listened to the horror of two people in their dining room, experiencing the agony of losing their child, and I began the struggle of losing my brother.

Over the years, I’ve realized that watching your parents survive this is a secondary trauma to your own experience of the loss. You grieve; you grieve for them as well. I cannot begin to convey the lessons you learn from watching your mother’s sorrow swell, crest, dissipate, and rise again over the years. Witnessing that undoubtedly redefined what parenthood and mothering meant to me. In considering any potential to have my own children, my understanding of the risks and wagers inherent in parenting has changed a great deal. I learned that children weren’t guaranteed. If children died — and in my horribly skewed reality, they did — their presence and much of your life was replaced with an inescapable, oppressing horror.

In short, the worst of parent experiences is much larger and clearer in my life than the good.

Losing my brother either manifested or triggered in me a struggle with anxiety that I hadn’t known before. Not in the sense of worrying or being tense or being preoccupied; intense, trauma-based anxiety strikes like a tsunami, collapses the structures around you, leaves you wild and panicked and grasping for reality, safety, and security. I’ve gained a lot of control over it and have developed ways of calming those thoughts, but they are there. I imagine that, if I had a child, they would resurface tenfold, engulfing me. I would live with not only the fear of grief because of my experience observing my parents, but the struggle with panic-and-anxiety-riddled conviction that my child might die, right now, unless I somehow prevent it.

I wonder at what point, if at all, I would be able to experience my own child detached from my memories of my brother. When I initially considered ever having children, one of my first and only certainties was that its name, regardless of gender, would be after him. Since then, I’ve put that certainty away. If I did have children, when would I stop combating the guilt that stems from having kids, an experience he wanted and never got to have? When would my child stop reminding me of my own childhood with him? Would those thoughts be overshadowed by the present, or always on the periphery? What would be my brother’s (and his death’s) role in how I viewed, raised, and related to my own child?

I would hate for her to know that the loss of her child, or my observation of her, had negatively impacted my feelings about having kids.

There is the additional difficulty of being the only surviving child and having a mother who very much wants grandchildren. I’m not in a position to give them to her right now; simultaneously, I’m not in a place to explain why. I would hate for her to know that the loss of her child, or my observation of her, had negatively impacted my feelings about having kids. My mother is by far one of the strongest, most loving mothers I have ever known. She sewed her children’s baby blankets at fifteen because, five years before she was ever pregnant, she already wanted her own children so badly. She is an intrinsically loving, nurturing soul; no one deserved to see their children grow up and start families more than her.

I know that not all surviving siblings have these feelings; I know that many go on to have fantastic experiences with parenthood. But for me, I feel like it’s an experience that I learned too much about in the wrong way and before I saw the good parts. (I have now seen “the good parts” as my friends have had children.) My own trauma and subsequent struggles with anxiety, as well as my experience with watching my parents’ trauma, remain the frame through which I experience these choices, at least for now.

Comments on Losing a sibling as a teen changed my feelings about parenthood

  1. I’m sorry your family went through that. My mother-in-law also lost her brother when she was a teenager. A few years ago one of my brothers (they’re twins) had some serious health issues and once in awhile I would have anxiety attacks because the thought of the three of us (but especially those two) not being together was horrifying. I hope you’re able to do what you wish and are able to lead a happy life 🙂

  2. My heart really goes out to you and your family. Your struggles and concerns make absolute sense to me because, in my experience, love simply does not come without fear, pain and anxiety. Having something to lose is what makes it so hard but also what has made it so worth it for me. I hope you find whichever way is right for you.

  3. My younger brother was killed almost two years ago in Afghanistan, and I have also thought about some of the things you mentioned. Only last night, my mom called on her way to an awards ceremony in which the award was given in my brother’s name, and she told me how much she didn’t want to go, but felt that she had to, and knew how sad she’d be once she arrived. It’s hard; you share your parents’ sadness, which is on another level different from a sibling’s point of view.
    Life is so, so short–after my brother was killed, I adopted the philosophy that I simply must make the best of it. I do my best each day to surround myself with love, and not to stress over the little things. I have become a better person through this process. My brother was the kindest, most compassionate person I have ever known. I do want to have children with my husband–although I expect I’ll always be hoping to see a bit of my brother in their personalities–I hope I do.

  4. Maybe you should tell your mom the impact watching her grief has had on you. Maybe she has some insights that would help you make your decision about motherhood.

    I think it’s telling that despite her profound loss, she wants you to experience motherhood. You say she wants grandkids, but from speaking with my mom, her seeing me as a mom is just a fulfilling and joyful for her as her relationship with her granddaughter. So while i’m sure your mom wants grandchildren for herself, she’s also wanting children for you.

    I would guess that she doesn’t regret having you and your brother, and that given the choice again she would chose to have him for only 20 years over never knowing him at all.

    I know it’s not helpful, but my husband likens parenthood to a singularity- that becoming a parent is such a profound change, that you can’t really know or predict who/how you will be after it happens. Not to say that the decision should be taken lightly, but there’s only so much thinking and planning you can do in advance of the unknowable. That said, I wish you well in your journey and know you will come to a decision that is right for you.

  5. Thank you thank you so much for expressing this so beautifully…as this is exactly how I feel after losing my younger brother in an accident.

    Your words are very hard to read for me, yet they are right on point. I appreciate you expressing what i have always felt deep down.

    Being a parent of 2 children, one of whom almost died at birth, I feel the trauma of loss and the trauma of a difficult birth ever so keenly…but the sweet moments of parenthood is what makes it all bearable.

  6. Wow. Your story brought tears to my eyes. I was not an adult, but a very young child, when my sister died. When I found out I was pregnant (unplanned), I had a lot of these same feelings. In fact, I planned an abortion. I decided at the last minute that I wanted to be a mother. That was the hardest decision of my life. I still wake up and have to check my daughter’s breathing because that fear doesn’t go away–or at least it didn’t for me. Thank you for sharing, and good luck navigating this situation.

  7. I know how you feel.
    The only thing that “helps” me in my grief is to think about (I know this sounds weird but…) outer space, about observing the earth from a black hole and being able to see the entirety of time, how we and Earth are all such a minuscule part of this huge universe.
    I know that sounds weird and trippy, and I’m not normally a “weird and trippy” person, but it somehow helps me when coping with such a huge loss.
    It’s like how they say “if you think you’re having a panic attack, try to go outside.”
    Something about the larger scheme of the world helps to calm people, somehow.
    So where I’m going with this is….maybe think about if you’re looking at the world from a black hole, and can see your whole lifespan, what do you want it to look like? Would you have children? Travel? Marry? Etc. Sometimes doing that helps me see beyond the immediate fury/sadness of grief.
    It seems to work for me, so thought I would pass it along. *hugs*

  8. I lost my brother as well. It’s been almost 8 years now. I understand stand how you feel. However I have a younger sister, and it’s helped to have her. I can’t totally understand all your feelings, as now your the only living sibling. That must be very difficult at times. I just want you to know I send my love to you and your family. I know no matter how long ago it was, you never get over it. And grief is a ever changing process. I still grieve my brother, sometimes every once and awhile It feels like the day I found out. I’m actually due to give birth to my 1st, a boy and know what fears you talk about, I have them too. I just do my best not to live my life in fear of what could happen, I just try and focus on the now and enjoy it. Anyway I understand your fears and send my condolences.

  9. I have really gone back and forth on whether or not to respond to this. I haven’t experienced the loss of a sibling or child and, obviously, hope not too. I can’t imagine what this experience was like for either of you.

    The one thing that I am sure of is that I cannot imagine a scenario, however horrible, where I would regret having either of my children. And I would be sad if my actions in any way made them hesitate to have children of their own. If they chose to be childless, I will respect that, of course, but I would not want to be the one dissuading them from taking this journey.

    I don’t know your relationship with your mother, but if you could talk with her about this, I strongly encourage you to. It will no doubt be painful for both of you. Who knows what will come out of that conversation. But if your mother’s grief has colored your understanding of parenthood, it might be helpful to ask for her interpretation.

    Wherever this leads you, I do hope that you find peace.

  10. Thank you for writing and sharing this with us – it is a very courageous and honest thing to do and I hope that even just writing it down has helped you to heal.

    Much of what you wrote really resonated with me – having lost both of my parents and then become a mother myself, I can tell you, that fear you talk about, totally happened to me when our daughter was born. I think that when you know how easily terrible things can happen, it’s very easy to believe they happen. I guess it’s actually also part of the grieving process.

    But the other aspect I wanted to share is that, for me at least, every day my daughter is okay – it gets easier and I get less scared. She’s nearly a year old now and whilst the anxiety can be very bad still, it’s a lot easier than it was. And adding to your family, having a new life to celebrate, that can be very special too and I found helped ease some of the sorrow.

    And like the last poster, I also wish you peace and joy on your journey – where-so-ever you may end up.

  11. I have a much larger and crazier family dynamic than yours. I have many siblings, some I am super close to and some I have never met. 2 have passed. I am also mother to 4 and expecting #5.

    I too had tears in my eyes when I read what you shared. I feel a weight in your words that is perspective based though. If you looked at your situation from the outside, and as compared to all the suffering that goes on in the world…your experience, though painful and full of grief and loss…would not seem so monumental. You use expressions like “the worst of parental experiences” Parenthood is like life. Full of wondrous and painful experiences. As the mother of teenagers I can tell you, you share their pain in a helpless way that scars you. The same way getting dumped for the first time yourself scarred you.

    My daughter was a 19 yr old virgin. We had only just taken care of birth control for her planning her first time. A month later, before she ever got the chance, she was abducted and raped. To us, that was the worst of parental pain. Not because I am not so grateful she walked away with her life…but because it is the worst thing that happened to us…and because it will haunt so many milestones for the rest of her life.

    Some days it can swallow her whole. Other days are full of sunshine and smiles. The pain your mother has endured feels the same I am sure. Perhaps, you will change your mind and have children…and being a grandmother will make her happier than she ever knew she could be. Perhaps you won’t and she will find something else to bring her joy.

    The most important thing is to talk to her about it. If I have learned anything thru the ups and downs of parenting, it’s that my children misjudge the situation and my reaction to it frequently. Talking about it is the only way to make sure everyone is on the same page.

    Light and love to you and your family, straight from my heart to yours. Life is not about what happens to us, but how we react to what happens to us. I wish you more bliss than worry.

  12. My brother died when he was 11 and I was 13. It messed me up for a decade. I always said I’d have three kids so if one died the other two would still have a sibling. As it turns out we’re stopping at two children, and I’m horrified that one will die.

  13. Thank you for this. I lost my sister 17 years ago this month and am now 26 weeks pregnant with my first. Everything you so eloquently wrote here resonates with me so. much. I’ve always felt that the left-behind sibling is overlooked in a tragedy like this, though in many instances we feel the loss twofold; our sibling is gone, but so is our first friend, our confidant, our other half.

    I wait for the other shoe to drop. I wait for people I love to leave in some way the way that she did. I’m not as neurotic about it as I was when the loss was fresh, but it’s there in the back of my mind. I have the same fears about my daughter (who will be named after my sister); I find myself wondering if I’m going to eventually lose her, too. Some days it’s easier to manage than others. Some days the thought swallows me up. But I get by.

    Thank you for putting it all into words.

  14. It’s a loss that reverberates through generations too. You mentioned the possibility of naming your child after your brother. My dad’s mom was the 2nd of 4 kids, 3 girls and the youngest a boy. The boy died in a car accident at 19, drinking was involved. My dad bears his name as his middle name. And now my son has that same middle name too. My grandmother never drank a drop after her brother’s death and that’s affected my own behaviour too. Even if his whole generation has now passed away too, he still isn’t forgotten.

  15. I had a similar experience. Watching your mother go through that is almost as hard as losing a brother. I hadn’t realized until reading your post that this is why I’m experiencing so much anxiety about my own son. You explained it perfectly, and my heart goes out to your family.

  16. My little sister died when she was seven months old. I was young when it happened, and it took me over 20 years to finally ask my father about the circumstances surrounding her death. I didn’t think I’d ever stop crying once he finally did. It definitely does affect the way I look at having children – the idea that you can protect them while they are inside of you but once they’re out, you can’t – just terrifies me. Thank you for this.

  17. Thank you for writing this…it meant a lot for me to read it. My brother was killed almost 7 years ago and I am just about to have twins. I had a really hard time getting/staying pregnant and for me finally having these babies feels like a very healing step, like it’s time to focus on the good in life instead of the bad. Even though I know these children could die at any time, for me being willing to take a chance with having them is huge, especially since I went through many years thinking “if my brother is not here/can’t do this too, I don’t want to do any of it.”
    And I am naming my boy after my brother.
    I’m so very sorry for your loss…

  18. Thanks for sharing this.

    Though I haven’t lost a sibling yet, my sister was hospitalized twice last year for attempting suicide and I live in almost constant fear of receiving the news that she’s done it again and succeeded in taking her life this time.

    My partner and I are talking about starting a family this year, and I’m both thrilled and terrified. I always wanted to have two kids who would be best friends, like my sister and I, but now I’m afraid one will die and leave the other alone. Then I think maybe we should have only one kid so there won’t be the chance of one being left alone. But then I worry, what if our one kid also struggles with mental illness like my sister and we have to experience the pain of losing our only child?

    I’m not sure what the answer is. But I thank you for sharing your thoughts here and I wish you well.

  19. Wow. Thank you for sharing. Thank you other commenters too. I’ve never lost a sibling but my cousin was killed in a car accident when I was a teenager. Now that I have a baby and another on the way, I think more about my Aunt’s loss and how very horrible it must be to go through.
    I wish you the best.

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