Only my brother

When Shelley Bovey's brother died at 17, she was told that her grief was secondary to that of her parents. But that's not how it felt to her
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I was 20 when my 17-year-old brother died in a car accident. He was killed in the early evening of an ordinary Sunday, and the familiar rhythm of my life stuttered and then stopped as the world tipped and tilted and set itself down in entirely the wrong place.

I shall never forget the sight of my parents' small country pub when I arrived there. It lay in total darkness at a time when bright lights should have been shining out into the lane, and there was silence where there should have been laughter and noise. It was a terrible anomaly, an incongruity which jarred so badly that I felt that never again would I be able to trust the safety of the mundane.

My brother and I had just become friends. Like many siblings, we had spent much of our lives locked in conflict over the sort of pettinesses that acquire their true perspective only with the dawning of adulthood. When he died, we were both aware that we stood on the threshold of a new relationship in which we would be partners, not opponents.

There was no chance to grieve. Almost immediately I was surrounded by my parents' friends telling me that my parents had experienced the most terrible loss. Part of me wanted to cry out that I, too, had suffered a devastating loss, but I was only 20 and the prospect of my parents falling apart was terrifying. Besides, these older, surely wiser, people seemed not to acknowledge that I might be affected.

I did what was required of me. I was strong for my parents, and buried my own grief in some remote, inaccessible place. I emerged strangely unscathed. Or so I thought.

A sudden devastating, disabling panic attack on the Underground one day ended with me being hospitalised, then reassured. I'd lost a brother recently, they said, so this was reaction, nothing to worry about. The panic attacks continued, but it was "only stress". The notion of suppressed grief was not proposed. No one suggested bereavement counselling. The loss of a brother, it appeared, did not occupy a noteworthy place in the hierarchy of tragedy.

Inside me, something was growing like a fungus. Part of my life had disappeared and nobody would acknowledge it. I had moved to a different part of the country where my brother had had no place, no connection, and therefore no existence. I kept wanting to return to the village where we had been brought up, where I could tap into the memories of our history and somehow take hold of him again, and of the past we had shared.

Throughout the next 20 or so years, my brother was rarely mentioned. My parents had banished all reminders of him: photographs were put away, his possessions had been disposed of, his name was not spoken. I did not know how to answer the standard question: "Have you any brothers or sisters?" Sometimes, perhaps to avoid the pain I had not touched, I said I was an only child; sometimes I told the truth. "How dreadful," came the sympathetic response. "How terrible for your parents."

How terrible indeed. And with that came guilt. Why him and not me? And the insidious, niggling question: "Would they have preferred it to have been me?" This is not as paranoid as it may sound; the dead are always invested with shining qualities and remembered only for their virtues. Sibling jealousy and competition for parents' affection is natural, and the corollary for those of us bereft of a sibling is that part of the pain can be feeling diminished in our parents' sight.

All this unresolved emotion is a heavy burden to carry into adulthood. But adults, too, find that the death of a sibling can engender a set of complex reactions made harder to bear by the fact that society provides few reference points; in the canon of bereavement, the death of a spouse, a child, even of elderly parents finds recognition, but the waters soon close over the loss of a brother or sister.

Time and again, when talking to bereaved siblings, I have found a resonant loneliness caused by this lack of acknowledgement. Clare Black's sister Helen was killed while parascending in Corfu: Clare's "worst nightmare come true".

At first, shock and having so much to do prevented Clare from mourning. When she was ready to face it, she found her grief blocked by a mother who refused to acknowledge the tragedy of Helen's death. Their mother is a despot who divided the sisters in life and now was doing so in death.

"I had harboured in my heart the thought that when our mother died, Helen and I would be able to talk about our lives," said Clare. "Now I will never know how she felt, how she suffered as a child.

"It's not just the loss of her as a person, but of knowledge about her. We hadn't reached the stage where we could really talk about what we felt, and now that's the most horrendous part of grief - not being able to share our memories, our history."

Clare has only recently begun to talk about her sister's death and has found her grief curiously ambiguous. Painful memories of Helen's birth when Clare was 21/2 have demanded examination; this conflation of birth and death is not uncommon. They are inextricably linked in Clare's mind. "I remember her birth as much as her death," she said.

As I grow older, my brother's presence is increasingly defined by his absence; he exists in the realm of what might have been, what should have been. My children have no uncle and no cousins. When my parents died, relatively young, I felt the bitterness of his loss, too - the only person who could fully and adequately have accompanied me through their deaths. I became the senior generation without him as my partner. We shared a past, a concurrent history; he belongs in a time we both inhabited, but I went forward alone.

I create the person he might be now from my imagination: in his forties, perhaps thickset and balding like my father, perhaps grey, almost certainly with a family. He is there and yet not there, like the phantom of an amputated limb.

"Love is not changed by death", and all, in the end, may well be harvest, but the grief and emptiness resulting from the loss of a sibling always remains, even though its sharpness may be tempered by time. Childhood so potently informs our adult lives; the continuum that only a sibling can share is fractured by this death and the impact should not be underestimated.

The names of Clare and Helen Black have been changed.