How to survive the death of a sibling

It is almost July 24.  My younger brother’s birthday.  He would have been 45 this year.  4 years younger than me.  However, when his birthday comes this year I will do what I have been doing for the past 5 years.  I will bake a chocolate cake  and I will light a yahrzeit candle to honor his memory. Because on April 14, 2009, my younger brother Brian died from a heart attack. Technically he had “coronary artery disease”, but it was his heart that stopped working, so I call it a heart attack.

I had a tricky relationship with my mother for years before that due to my own stupidity and immature decisions so when she called me that day I knew something was wrong.  We had not spoken to each other in 4 years.  I immediately thought the bad news was going to be about my father.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be about my 39 year old brother.

Brian and I.  I was 22 and he was 18
Brian and I. I was 22 and he was 18

Brian and I hadn’t spoken in a couple of years. We had somewhat of a falling out over my decision to love a woman.  He had difficulty with that choice, and we had an uncomfortable conversation about it. 

But we didn’t shout at each other.  The conversation wasn’t ugly, it was just a disagreement about my life.  In fact the last thing I ever said to my brother was, “I am sorry you feel that way. I love you and when you are ready I will be here. I love you.” No matter what I had done in my life, I am so grateful that I had the clarity in that moment to say kind and loving things to my “little” brother, and not end the conversation in a negative or bad way.

I cannot imagine the guilt I would still be feeling if I had yelled, or said something ugly or mean to him and then never had the chance to apologize. After all, who expects a 39 year old man to die??? Who expects to never talk to a family member again after an argument???

To be honest I never really thought about the afterlife, or “spirits” before Brian died. The day he died and for a few days after, it felt as though he were here in my house with me. It was a peaceful and calming feeling. I felt love and acceptance from him. It was as if he was saying he was sorry that we had an argument and he loved me. It is hard to explain unless you have felt it yourself.

Unfortunately, my brother left two teenage sons behind.  They adored each other, and those boys feel his loss very strongly to this day.  They don’t talk about their dad much.  The pain is just too much for them to handle yet.

I have learned to make sure those we love KNOW we love them. Don’t assume your loved ones “just know” you love them, tell them, and do it often. My nephews know their dad loved them tremendously.  He told them with his words and showed them with his actions.

One of the things I found difficult was the lack of information and support  groups for surviving siblings.  Surviving siblings are often called the “silent mourners”.  People don’t think about siblings when a person dies.  They think “Oh my gosh, his poor spouse.” or “his poor parents”, or “his poor children”.  People don’t realize how devastating it is to lose a sibling. 

Brian age 19
Brian age 19

A sibling relationship is conceivably the longest relationship you will ever have with anyone during your life.  It is alternately loving someone and hating someone.  Whether you love them or hate them can be a changing emotion from day to day.  In my experience with an older and younger brother, sometimes from hour to hour my feelings for them changed. 

I knew Brian his ENTIRE life, and whether we were very close or not when we were adults we have shared experiences that I don’t share with anyone else…..ever.  I “helped” my mother change his diapers, fed him his bottles.  I remember the day my parents brought him home from the hospital.  We grew up in the same house with the same parents, the same older brother and we formed bonds that could never be broken.  Losing a sibling is devastating because you feel as though an entire part of your past is suddenly missing, like a black hole appears where there used to be a person.

A few weeks after Brian died the immediate family and their children gathered at my parents house in Florida to bury Brian’s cremains and have a funeral service. It was wonderful to all be together, although the reason we were there was so incredibly sad. The military service was beautiful, (Brian was an AO3 in the Navy), and he had full military honors.  The lonely sound of the bugle and the sharp crack of the rifles are sounds I will never forget!

I had never experienced grief before. No one close to me had ever died. I wasn’t close to my grandparents, although the death of my maternal grandfather saddened me quite a bit because he was such a wonderful man, and I had fond memories of him.

What I have learned is that grief sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Mine seems to be triggered by a song, or a memory. I will be driving down the road, or sitting in a quiet moment, and the grief hits. Not your “TV drama” grief with wailing and gnashing of the teeth, but quiet tears and pain in my heart.

Missing him….the realization that we won’t talk again…knowing he won’t see my children (or his children) get married……knowing he won’t see his grandchildren. These are the quiet moments of sadness.

Having to say the words out loud to someone who didn’t already know. Having to say “My younger brother died”. That is hard. Even 5 years later it always brings tears.

Sibling grief is hard.  People often don’t know what to say.  They don’t understand the level of grief you feel when  a sibling dies. My mother provided me with an immense amount of comfort. She said that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t spoken to Brian in a couple of years. What mattered was that when the opportunity had been there for me to tell him I loved him while he was alive, I had done so.

That when we were growing up I had shown him love ( not always in a sweet way…after all, he was my bratty little brother… lol). But I had spent time with him, and we had fun together. I have lots of great memories of being Brian’s sister when we were kids.  Family vacations, days on my sailboat, walking to the bus stop. We were 4 years apart so we weren’t in upper grades together, but he did accompany me to events pretty regularly.  (I think my parents wanted him there so I would be less likely to be naughty).  A sibling chaperone, if you will.  

Memorial Day parade garb. Circa 1980.
Memorial Day parade garb. Circa 1980.

As adults, we had many great times.  We had family barbecues, and get togethers.  We made homemade ice cream at 4th of July picnics.  Our kids ate hotdogs and caught fireflies together.  They went swimming in the lake together.  We even had flag burning ceremonies to teach the kids about that.  (Brian was an Eagle Scout).   I had told him I loved him and shown him love. She said THAT was what mattered.

That was immensely comforting to me. Brian knew I loved him.

We visited Brian’s grave when we went to Florida a couple of years after Brian died. We buried stones around his headstone. My two boys and I had all picked out beautiful stones we had, and took them down to Florida with us and left them there for Brian. The Genius had a big white quartz stone, Joe Cool had a shiny smooth black stone, and I had a beautiful tiger’s eye stone I had received at a meditation seminar. We left those with him. (It is Jewish tradition to place stones on the gravestone when you visit, but we had to bury them because Bushnell Natinal Cemetary doesn’t allow them to be left on the gravestone)

It has been five years since Brian died. I am not finished grieving. I don’t think it ever ends completely. My mother gave us all a bit of Brian’s cremains, and the little box sits on my mantle with a picture of Brian and some mementos from the funeral. I see Brian every day. It makes me smile to see his picture some days. It brings tears on other days. I think that is how grief works. At least for me.


I always remember my brother as the wonderful man he had become. I want to tell you a little about him.  He was sarcastic.  He was funny, and he had a big laugh.  After he died, my mother asked his sons what they wanted Brian’s headstone to say.  They said their dad always said he wanted his tombstone to say “Pepperoni and cheese”,  from the slogan for Tombstone Pizza, “what do you want on your Tombstone?”  My mother was adamant that she was NOT going to put that on Brian’s headstone, but the boys kept insisting.  She stuck to her guns and the boys finally relented.  However, being true to who Brian was, she did allow them to put something different. 

So as you walk down the rows of headstones in The National Cemetery in Bushnell Florida, you see things like, “Beloved Father”, “We miss you Mother”, and “Amazing son”, then you come to Brian’s and it reads: Brian Kaufman, Jul 1969- Apr 2009,  “So long and thanks for all the fish.”   If you have never heard that phrase before you can learn about it by reading the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.  And if you have read that book, I am sure you have a smile on your face.  That was Brian, fun, funny, sarcastic, loving father, wonderful son, bratty yet adored brother, nerd, and true Sci-Fi fan!!


One thought on “How to survive the death of a sibling

  1. A beautiful tribute to your brother. When my best friend of 42 years died I did go to a grief group that was for anyone who lost someone and there were siblings there, as well as best friends, Moms, wives and cousins. All were grieving and working it out in their own ways. It was interesting that it is was all women. It was at the local hospital near me. This was 15 years ago and she is with me every day and I feel her. I am so glad you told him you loved him and glad that your Mom and you reconciled.
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    1. Thank You Madge!!! I did love him very much and miss him all teh time!! I wish we had been closer when we were yuonger but I feel as though we were robbed of our possibility of being closer in our older age….

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