Recovering from the Loss of a Sibling

Recovering from the Loss of a Sibling

by Katherine Fair Donnelly

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An extremely well-written, compassionate guide for the millions of people who come face to face with a death in their own families

When a brother or sister dies, surviving siblings often receive little support or recognition of their pain. But their grief is real, and there is a way to recover from it. Through intimate, true stories and interviews with brothers and sisters who have lost a sibling, expert-on-grief Katherine Fair Donnelly provides valuable insight on how to survive this traumatic experience. Recovering from the Loss of a Sibling is the first guide dedicated to those who have lost a brother or sister, and presents practical ways they can take the necessary steps toward recovering from their devastating loss.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504014083
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Edition description: Digital Original
Pages: 254
Sales rank: 527,949
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Author of over nine books published in various languages, including her Recovery series, Katherine Fair Donnelly also co-wrote a “Recovering” column, which was syndicated alongside Dear Abby and Ann Landers in publications such as the Dallas Morning News. She lectured at numerous colleges and appeared on the Today Show, Sally Jessy Raphael show, and Canada AM, as well in People magazine and The Wall Street Journal for her extensive grief work. Donnelly died in 2014.

Read an Excerpt

Recovering from the Loss of a Sibling

By Katherine Fair Donnelly


Copyright © 1988 Katherine Fair Donnelly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1203-4


A Sibling Dies

Each of the brothers and sisters who appear in this chapter, all teenagers or adults, has experienced the sorrow of the death of a sibling. (Chapters on the special problems of younger children who have suffered the loss of a sibling will appear later.) As we move on in the book, we will read about the ways they have coped with their grief. But, first, let the bereaved tell us what happened to change their lives so dramatically.

Eighteen-year-old Allison Heitner sat by herself in the office where just the day before she had started a summer job. On her first day of work, her boss' brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Now, all alone, with no one else in the office, Allison began to reflect on the telephone call she had received the night before from her younger sister, Leslie, who was in a hospital for treatment. "I can't wait to see you tomorrow," Leslie had said. "Tell Mommy to bring lots of pizzas when she comes. I love you, Allison. See you tomorrow."

Thinking of that phone call, Allison decided that instead of waiting until evening to wish her sister a happy birthday, she would call the hospital right now. The nurse who answered said, "Leslie is in a group therapy meeting and can't come to the phone." Allison wasn't concerned. The telephone setup in the hospital was like that of a shared phone line in a school dormitory and she had received similar replies on previous occasions.

Allison then called her mother at her place of work to make the final arrangements for the birthday visit to Leslie, but was told her mother had to leave to go to the hospital. "That's strange," Allison thought. "We usually go there during visiting hours." Concerned, Allison called home, and when her brother answered, she asked, "Why did Mommy go to the hospital?" Her brother nervously answered, "I can't tell you, I can't tell you."

Growing more concerned, Allison called the hospital again. Here she continues with the story of what happened next: "This time a kid answered the phone. I asked, 'May I speak to Leslie Heitner, please?' And the boy said to me, 'Leslie Heitner drowned in the bathtub this morning.' Annoyed, I replied, 'What are you talking about? Please put an adult on the phone.' When Leslie had first been put in that place, I knew that some of its people were probably 'sickees.' I tried at first to be sympathetic to them and thought 'Oh, all of these kids are normal. They've just had nervous breakdowns and all have had one problem or another.' That's why when the kid who answered the phone said my sister had drowned, I tried to be tolerant, even though I was outraged at his comment and thought, 'He must really be a sickee.' So I insisted, 'Please put a nurse on the phone.' Finally, a nurse came to the phone and I asked, 'May I speak to Leslie Heitner?' Her reply was shocking: 'I'm very sorry to tell you, but Leslie Heitner was drowned in the bathtub this morning.'

"I was at work, all alone, in the middle of New York City. And all the nurse said was, 'I'm sorry. I know how you feel.' As I hung up the phone, my immediate reaction was. 'Oh, no, you do not know how I feel. You most certainly do not know how I feel!'"

Allison, thinking back on the events that led her sister to that hospital and to her death, went on: "My sister and I were only ten months apart and we were inseparable. Everyone took us for twins. She was very sociable and had a lot of friends. But in her last year of high school, she started to take up yoga as a hobby. She didn't to go yoga class; instead she started to borrow from the library a number of books on spiritual at-oneness and being one with yourself. She read every one of them. Then, suddenly, she became a different person. She went from going to parties, having fun, and visiting me at school to saying things such as, 'You know, everyone is this town is materialistic. I'm reading these books and the crucial thing is to find your spiritual self.' Then she would add, 'The most important thing really is the afterlife and not being concerned in this life with money or pretty makeup or such things.' Before that, Leslie had been concerned with money and the things it can buy, such as clothes and cosmetics — like a normal teenager. She began to say such things as, 'Everybody here is superficial. The world is a mess because people don't even know what real life is all about.'

"Listening to this stuff from her began to be a little monotonous after a while, and people began to say, 'Stop with the yoga.' We'd go to parties and she'd say, 'Okay, everybody, let's sit down and meditate.' When we would tell her to forget it, she would say things like, 'All you people are phonies, you and your world and your wars.' Leslie was a different person now, almost possessed it seemed. She became obsessed with her books to the point where she was saying, 'I don't even know why I'm living. I don't have to finish school; that's not important. The most important thing is that I sit and meditate and become one with myself,' and she would stare at a candle. These were the first signs of change in her."

Even though Leslie had only two months before graduation, she stopped going to school. Allison recalls, "My parents were concerned about the change in her and suggested to Leslie that she see a doctor to find out why she was so depressed. To this, Leslie agreed. She went to a psychiatrist who told my parents that what she was going through was entirely normal and advised them not to worry. But Leslie became worse. She had started with being depressed, then the world was a big mess, and then she began to say, 'I know something's going to happen to me. I have this feeling that I'm not going to reach my eighteenth birthday. I can't explain it.'"

Leslie believed that, according to the books she had been reading, she was "almost at her karma" and that something dire was about to happen. Allison remembers the response she and her parents had to Leslie's prognostications: "What are you talking about? Are you crazy? You're in perfect health. You're a beautiful girl; nothing is going to happen to you." To these reassurances, Leslie would reply, "Look, I know, I know. Don't ask me, because I can't explain it."

Allison recalls the next step in Leslie's illness. "A couple of weeks went by and she began to say, 'Somebody's going to kill me. It may be the police.' Or, 'Something is going to happen. Somebody is going to kill me.' But she couldn't explain who or what."

After a series of events, Leslie was taken to a hospital where her family hoped she would be helped and where she could be taken care of. "But," Allison says, "in that place, Leslie's fears came true. She didn't celebrate her eighteenth birthday because she was dead in a hospital tub."

On Friday the thirteenth, Elaine Kraf Altman received a telephone call from her brother's live-in friend, Gwen O'Dell. "They were away on vacation," Elaine tells us. "Gwen called me at my office to say that Michael had collapsed and had been taken to the hospital. I was so upset my co-workers rushed to get water for me. My knees felt like rubber. I couldn't stand. I had to sit down. I had told Gwen that I was on the way to my husband's office because we had been about to go away, too. She told me to go ahead with our plans and that she would call us from the hospital to give us news about my brother."

Elaine pulled herself together and took the train to her husband's office. Enroute, she prayed, but she'd had an earlier premonition. Elaine reflects: "A year ago, the four of us — my husband and I, and Gwen and Michael — were very friendly. One day my husband and I met Michael alone. Gwen couldn't be there because she was spending the day with her mother who was ill. I had not seen my brother for several months and I was shocked at his appearance. He looked older, seemingly he had aged prematurely. The change in him was so extreme and haunting that I asked him about it. He claimed that he had food poisoning but I still had an eerie feeling about him. This all came to my mind while I was sitting there and looking out the window enroute to meet my husband."

When Elaine got off the train, she walked toward the entrance to her husband's office, but was afraid to go upstairs. "I was petrified of hearing that Michael had died. I walked back and forth downstairs for what seemed an enternity. When I finally went up the stairs, my husband, Martin, shook his head and told me Gwen had called from the hospital to say that Michael was dead."

Elaine recalls her reaction: "It was closing time at my husband's place of business, and although a number of his co-workers had already left for the day, many people were still there. I was unaware of any of them. I just began to scream. 'No, no. Not my brother, not my brother.' It was the worst shock of my life."

We have read how two surviving sisters learned of the death of a sibling. We will now hear how twin brothers, Joe and Richard Sundland, reacted to the death of their younger brother, Chris.

On the evening of February twenty-fourth, in a small town in Illinois, the twins and some of their friends were watching the January twenty-eighth movies of their thirteenth birthday party. Chris, their mother Sherry, and their father Tom, were also there. As usual, Chris wanted a front-row seat, which so annoyed the twins that they teased him and called him by the pet name they used when he got on their nerves — "Punkie."

The following day, Thursday, February twenty-fifth, the twins had wrestling practice after school. Chris was out playing on the creek behind their house with Heather, the girl who lived next door. The creek was frozen solid except for one small spot, into which, somehow, Chris and Heather both fell. Heather was able to get out and run home.

Sherry, the boy's mother, tells of the events that followed: "The police, divers, and rescue squad were here within eight minutes of the call at 4:20 P.M. When Joe and Rich got home at about 5:00 P.M. and saw the police, someone told them that Chris had drowned. They came running into the house and Joe yelled, 'Is it true that Christopher was drowned?' I told him that it was true, and he threw his books across the table and yelled, 'No! No! It can't be true.' Then he ran into his bedroom. Rich just walked around seeming to be in shock, as we all were.

"It was chaos with the phone ringing and people out on the ice," Sherry continued. "The twins said they were thinking of how they had called Chris 'Punkie' the night before and of the other times they had called him names and told him to get lost. The guilt and hurt hadn't really started to settle in yet. Tom and I thought it might be better for the boys to stay overnight at the home of their friends who lived about a block away. In this way, they wouldn't be able to see the rescue operations. Meanwhile, we explained to them that the drowning was an accident and that no one was at fault. Their friends cried with them on and off all that evening. When darkness fell, the search for the body was suspended, to be resumed at dawn.

"I asked the boys if they'd like to go to school the next day, for staying home and watching the divers would help no one, but it was up to them. They decided to go. At school, the principal told Joe and Rich they could walk out of a class whenever they chose. But they did so only when some of the other boys and girls began to cry. After class, their friends, not being sure of what to say, put their arms around Joe and Rich in silent sympathy. Other children asked what had happened."

The twins' mother reflects on their decision to go to school that day: "Joe and Rich feel as my husband and I do, that by returning to school they were with their friends and were able to share their grief more satisfactorily than if they had waited to return to school after the funeral. The kids at school talked to them, cried with them, and were there for support, as were the teachers. Joe and Rich think that if they had not seen their classmates till days later, the other boys and girls might not have known what to say or how to act, and might have avoided them.

"In another kind gesture, the classmates asked the principal if they could take the late bus home for that was the bus which Chris and Heather had used. The kids did this because some of the others were calling Heather a murderer, and the boys wanted to show their loyalty to her. They wanted to protect her from hurtful taunts. Heather had been only five, but Chris had turned six just ten days before he died."

The twins stayed at their friends' home again on Friday night as the search for their brother continued. Both felt anger at seeing the TV crews and the crowds of onlookers. On Saturday, the search went on, with many more people gawking in what had become a carnival-like atmosphere. "All four of us," Sherry, the twins' mother, remembers, "felt angry that people could create a spectacle out of something so tragic. Breaking up the ice to find Chris had taken many hours of manpower, and to see people who had no business to be there out on the ice walking around really incensed the boys and us. One TV channel from Chicago had Chris' picture on the news report and gave Richard's name. That added hurt to the boys' already building emotions, but Rich said it made him feel good to see so many hundreds of volunteers helping to find Chris."

The two days of horror were over on Saturday at 3 P.M., when Chris was found. The boys' mother tells of the family's prior apprehensions: "All that any of us felt was relief, for if he hadn't been found by Sunday, the rescue workers said they would have to wait until the ice on all the lakes thawed and hope that his body would then surface."

In the preceding poignant story, days passed before the body of the twins' brother was discovered. It was only then that the reality of the drowning hit them. In the following brief account, telling of his brother's death in an accident, seventeen-year-old Billy Pfister recalls the sudden impact that woke him out of a sound sleep.

"About four o'clock in the morning, I woke up suddenly. My mother was screaming! She was screaming so hysterically that I thought somebody was trying to break in. She didn't sound like herself. So I jumped up and ran downstairs to see what was going on. My mother and father were in the kitchen, and the police were at the door. I was too surprised to move. The police officers had told my parents that my brother John, twenty-two, had been in a motorcycle accident and had died from his injuries. My mother kept screaming and saying that it was a mistake. I was so thunderstruck I didn't say anything. I just stood there."

Before the following incident occurred, Susan Keats had just moved to New York from Chicago, where her family lived. One morning, she was almost out the door on her way to work when the phone rang. Susan continues the story: "the long-distance call was from my mother. She asked if my friend Pete was here. I said, 'no,' and told her he had gone to Florida the day before. I knew something was wrong, but I pretended I had no idea why she was calling. I sensed her news was going to be bad because, first of all, why would she ask me if Pete were here? But I just tried to stay cheerful and wait for her to go on. Then it came: My sister Carolyn had been killed in a car accident."

Susan remembers asking "Why?" Why did it have to result in death, she wondered. "Carolyn was driving home with friends. She was a careful driver, but the roads were quite icy. Suddenly, she hit a bad spot in the road and the car skidded out of control. Carolyn hit a tree sideways and was thrown out onto the road, although she was wearing a seat belt. All precautions had been taken, but they just didn't work." Susan, twenty-four, questioned why someone so young, who had done all the right things, was killed.

"Why not some sort of injury? It doesn't seem fair, but is life really fair anyway? Other people want to know if there wasn't some other element present. The question they immediately ask is, 'Was she drinking?' But she wasn't. My sister never drank. I guess they figure, 'If she was drunk, that was the reason for the accident, and so it won't happen to me.' Or, 'If she was on drugs, it won't happen to me.' Or, 'If she didn't wear her seat belt, then it won't happen to me.' I suppose it's natural for people to ask those questions to assure themselves that there had to be a reason, not shared by them, that caused Carolyn's death. It's frightening to realize that here was a person who wasn't doing any of the wrong things, who was a careful driver, was wearing her seat belt, didn't drink, and yet she, a twenty-seven-year-old beautiful girl, died doing all the right things!"

In the above story, we have read how a bereaved sibling learned of her sister's death by a phone call from her mother. The following is an account of how the parents of Ellen Spector learned of the tragic death of their twenty-year-old son Philip through a phone call from the Binghamton police.


Excerpted from Recovering from the Loss of a Sibling by Katherine Fair Donnelly. Copyright © 1988 Katherine Fair Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


In Memoriam,
CHAPTER 1 A Sibling Dies,
CHAPTER 2 This Isn't Real,
CHAPTER 3 Anger,
CHAPTER 4 Guilt Feelings,
CHAPTER 5 Symptoms of Grief,
CHAPTER 6 Coping with Holidays and Anniversaries,
CHAPTER 7 The Younger Ones–Part I,
CHAPTER 8 The Younger Ones–Part II,
CHAPTER 9 Other Heartbreaks,
CHAPTER 10 Parents and Other Family Members,
CHAPTER 11 At School,
CHAPTER 12 At the Workplace,
CHAPTER 13 The Haimes Family,
CHAPTER 14 Chuck Akerland,
CHAPTER 15 A Father's Thoughts on a Surviving Son,
CHAPTER 16 A Mother Talks of Her Surviving Son,
CHAPTER 17 Lynn Gardner and Her Children,
CHAPTER 18 Holly Shaw,
CHAPTER 19 Messages of Hope,
CHAPTER 20 Helping Hands,
Suggested Readings,

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