Reflections on Death: The Day My Brother Died
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




The Day My Brother Died

The Day My Brother Died

Ten years after her brother was killed in an auto accident, a young woman reflects back on what she learned.

by Deborah

It happened in South Africa. Haley's Comet was in the sky, and our whole family (five of us) plus an aunt and two cousins went camping to a park in the north to get the best view. We were all in a mini van.

The holiday was glorious, and my brother, who was 11, said to my mom at the end, "I've had such a good time. I've never been so happy."

On the way home, we were traveling across soft sand dunes, singing, having a wonderful time. My mom was driving. Eventually I fell asleep.

Suddenly the van started swerving, a tire blew, and my mom lost control. The van flipped over and rolled. There were no seat belts in the van, so we all tumbled over one another.

Someone said, "Is everyone okay?" And we began to step out.

I was the first to see my brother. The van had impacted his head. He had died immediately. My mother became hysterical.

We didn't know what to do. We were in the middle of nowhere. My dad suggested we try and lift the van, but it was a fruitless suggestion. I was so disturbed. Was he really dead?

From somewhere came another van, and we all got in. Someone stayed behind to stay with my brother. The hardest thing was getting in the van and leaving him. We were silent. I knew he was dead. I felt sick, cold, disbelief. My mom had to be sedated. None of the rest of us were hurt except for my cousin, who broke his collarbone.

TO BE STRONG

I began to have flashbacks and horrible feelings of guilt. When my brother was alive, I used to hang out with the girl cousins and shut him out. We thought we were so cool. We just tolerated him. Any time I was mean or bossy to him came back.

Friends flew us back home in their airplane. There was an icy feeling as we entered the house. Everything felt cold. The shiva was a blur. I remember covering the mirrors, lots of people, lots of food. I was in a cold daze for a day or so -- weird, detached.

After two days, friends of my parents took us for two hours to their home to play with their kids. I didn't like their kids, and I didn't want to be there. When I got home, I hid in my mom's room. She found me crying hysterically.

We all slept in the same room for nights. I remember waking up to my mom crying. It was hard seeing my parents completely upset. It was an intangible feeling -- my pillars were no longer there. They were suffering, and who could take care of them?

My parents were completely upset; my pillars were no longer there.

The shiva process is good because it forces you to be personally involved. The family is involved in the reality, and the support is there. It makes you confront it all -- you're sitting, not distracted. That's why you're there. I see the value in it now, but at the time it was hard.

I remember someone saying at the shiva, "You must be strong for your mom." Yes, I must be, but I'm not feeling strong for myself.

I felt sorry for my dad. People kept telling him to be a man and be strong for his wife.

Other stupid things people said:

- "Check your mezuzot"
- "At least you have two other kids."

People kept telling my mom to eat. Leave her alone! I learned that when you’re around mourners, if you don't know what to say, say nothing. But I can empathize. You would think that I would know better what to say now, but I don't.

PAIN IN THEIR EYES

I was angry with God. I didn't doubt my belief or question my Jewishness, but I just couldn't understand why something so horrible could happen.

My parents joined a bereavement group, which really helped them. They had groups for siblings, but I said, "No!"

The hardest part was not being able to talk to my parents. There was so much pain in their eyes. If they would bring him up, I would cringe because even though I wanted to keep his memory alive, I wanted my connection to be private. As I get older, I can talk about it to my parents more.

The most meaningful thing was when friends would say: I miss him, too.

Afterward, some of my parent's friends pretended he never existed, and that was wrong. The most meaningful thing to my mom was when friends would say, "I miss him, too."

He was a bright and wonderful person, intelligent, with special energy -- the most like my mom. It is beyond belief what she had to go through. After all, she was driving when it happened. There were times she didn't want to get out of bed, but she had a family who needed her.

At the unveiling of the tombstone, I felt very connected to him. Actually I felt that way right after he died. I would talk to him, sense his presence. There were many times later that I felt he was watching over me. I feel looked after, protected. Things have fallen into place in my life so smoothly that it's not even logical.

At different times I've had different understandings of what is spiritual. I believe sometimes that souls can connect.

Because he is buried in South Africa, I don't get to visit his grave often. But I remember going there after a few years and thinking of the sense of lost potential. "He'd be 22 now," I thought, even though I knew he wasn't meant to live beyond 11. But it feels like a loss. Reality is weird. Time and defense mechanisms can blur and protect, but when you're standing at a grave, it's very, very real.

I have a strong sense that there is a greater plan, that it couldn't have been prevented. But why him? Why someone with such potential to the world and to those around him? It's hard to fathom. You just don't know -- can't understand.

GUARDIAN ANGEL

The whole experience changed my life. I know I'm a completely different person than I would otherwise have been. I don't focus on trivial things. My teenage years were more serious, and I have chosen to work as an occupational therapist with people who are dying. I think it's because losing my brother made dying less scary. It's hard to explain. I'm also a better sister to my other brother.

I think because I had to think about death so young that I am less scared of dying. People don't face it until they're older. It became so real to me so young that it's part of the cycle. It's normal to die.

I had to attend a funeral of a patient I had gotten close to. It was not a Jewish funeral, so there was an open casket. I looked at her body, and it wasn't her. She looked empty -- like a vessel. Her spirit was who she was. The separation of body and soul are so strong.

It made me understand why we don't bring flowers to a gravesite. We don't try and beautify it because we are not visiting the person. We leave a stone to say we were there. It's a beautiful thing. When I'm actually doing that I feel connected to the soul.

I always believed in life after death and another world. I didn't know what Judaism believed. I knew very little about my own religion. Most Jews seem the same way. We know about every "ism" except Judaism.

On the Jewish holidays at the Yizkor service, I feel really good. It's a special time. I like taking time to fully concentrate. Even in my youth when I was anti?Judaism, it still felt right to do it.

I feel farthest away from him when I'm living my life superficially.

I feel close to him at different times. My brother looks a lot like him, so I sense that part of the brother I lost lives on in the brother I have. I also feel close when I light a Yartzeit memorial candle. And when things are hard or I'm confused, I feel his presence. I get that "guardian angel" feeling.

I feel farthest away from him when I'm living my life superficially, coasting, getting caught up in things that aren't meaningful.

My brother loved cricket and had memorized statistics and scores of hundreds of games, even though he didn't play himself. So my parents established an award that is given at his school for kids who aren't necessarily athletic but make an effort.

I remember the feeling of terror that my other brother wouldn't reach the age of Bar Mitzvah. He did, but the celebration was bittersweet. It was hard for my mom. But we didn't ignore our loss and spoke about him throughout the day.

When people ask how many siblings I have, I always say, "One." After all, at what point in a relationship or friendship do you bring it up? Anybody who is close to me knows. It's a big part of who I am, and people have been so good about it.

 


Excerpted from "Remember My Soul," by Lori Palatnik, Leviathan Press

 

 

Published: July 7, 2001


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 124

(108) BARBARA & MELISSA PERRY, July 1, 2013 6:41 AM

TO THE HUGHES FAMILY.

I HOPE AFTER YOU ALL READ THIS YOU WILL KNOW YOUR NOT ALONE...

(107) neha, June 26, 2013 12:49 PM

sorry for your brother

i also lost mylittil brother in accident 30dec 2012 .he is just 21 year old. i miss him. can i talk him plz if you know idead about the talk with dead people.

Marllene Langert, July 7, 2013 5:16 PM

Of course you can talk to him! (And directly to God.

My husband passed away 19 years ago at a young age. I have had a blessed life with him and since then, but I still miss him terribly. In the beginning I used to talk to him almost constantly. Now, less, but I still do. And guess what- - - -I got answers, signs, that I have shared with many others and I love to hear their stories when they open up to realizing that there is still a connection and a love. I facilitated Bereavement Groups for 16 years after his passing, just stopped this year. THis enabled me to hear many,many stories. Do not let anyone tell you that he is not around for you because he definitely is. God is always around too. So, talk with god talk with your brother and then sit in the quiet and meditate and you might hear an answer. Even if you don't , they are there with you. I wish I could tell you a couple of my provable stories, but not now.

(106) Anonymous, April 12, 2013 2:35 AM

Wow.. This article made me cry because I can't imagine going through this.. In January, my brother hung himself. I'm 16 and we both went through hell in our childhood. But nothing has ever been this hard. Unfortunately, I did have to find my brother after her did it.. But I didn't actually have to see it happen. I can not imagine that. Just thinking of it is awful. But I feel such conflicting feelings.. I feel extremely sad that my brothers gone, yet I'm in denial about it.. He's my brother.. How could he possibly be dead? It just doesn't seem real.. Yet it's all too real. Maybe this doesn't make sense.. Maybe considering people who are going through the same thing it does. I don't know. And I feel so guilty for everything wrong I ever did to him. I used to tell him I hated him and wanted him to die.. I wonder if he thought I'd be happy he was dead when he killed himself. It's all been so difficult. It's been so stressful. Emotionally and financially. Because it was a suicide, life insurance isn't covering anything. I want everything perfect for him. We buried him next to our father and I'm really not sure if we're going to have money to get him a good headstone. Most of the headstones just aren't... Him. Everything's just so weird.. Not having him in this household anymore. Not being able to talk to him.. It really hurts. It helps hearing other people who understand.. But at the same time it's heart breaking. I'm so sorry for everyone who's experiencing stuff like this :(

(105) Danielle, December 30, 2012 4:40 AM

Marines?

My brother who has a 47" aortic valve doesn't seem to care if he dies but when he leaves i cry every time were Italian so crying isn't a thing you should do but he won't listen to me or my dad or our family members I JUST DON'T WANT TO BURY MY BROTHER

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub
Sign up today!