Kathryn McNess was 24 when her brother Jeremy, 26, a pilot, was killed in a jet crash.
How does the passage of time alter a sibling’s grief for a brother or sister? “Jeremy’s death set my life on a different course. Initially I couldn’t even pretend to be a part of the normal world, despite trying to conceal my devastation publicly after a few months. For the years straight after he died, I was disconnected from others around me who were busy getting their careers and relationships into order and not with the mechanics of grief. I felt very bitter that Jeremy getting killed caused barely a ripple and that my contemporaries seemed unaware of how I might be feeling. The bitterness built up into a fury with everything.”
How would you describe your grief now? “My feelings for Jeremy are as strong as they ever were. I miss him just as much and hate that he has died just as much. Certainly I long for him just as much. Even though nearly 16 years have passed, in some ways it feels as though Jeremy is still just an un-turned corner away. I am not engulfed by grief in the way I used to be but it has become an integral part of me and the way I think and behave. I still haven’t found an easy way to talk to people about Jeremy, because it’s hard to drop death into most conversations, and yet to really know me is to know about what happened to my brother.”
How does it affect you these days when anniversaries come around, or when you see or hear reminders of Jeremy’s life? “I think I must be more feeble than others over this sort of thing, but I am still constantly alert for reminders of Jeremy, and it is the little things – a song he liked or the sound of a jet passing overhead – that keep him part of my daily life. In the days leading up to the anniversary of his death, I grow increasingly tense although the anniversary itself almost brings a sense of relief and a feeling of closeness to Jeremy. His birthday is plain depressing. I try not to let how I am feeling show, except to my parents and brother, because of feeling judged.”
Looking back, do you feel there have been stages in your grief? “I’ve never liked to think about my grief as having stages because I didn’t want my experience to be somehow generic or something able to be ticked off on a psychologist’s neat list. My despair over Jeremy was anything but neat. It began with incredulity, horror and shattering pain. I found it hard to find a way to reconcile my need to cry with my dislike of letting others see me out of control. I felt defeated and infuriated when people asked how I was but then retreated when I gave an honest and apparently confronting reply. Other people‟s reactions to my grief caused anger that lasted a long time. Now Jeremy passes through my mind each day but with a softer footfall.”
Has having children affected how you feel about your brother’s death? “I feel a deep sorrow that my daughter and son will never know their uncle and that he will never know that Morgan and John exist. I haven’t seen their births as somehow fulfilling the life cycle because Jeremy wasn’t an old man who had lived a long life. The demands of caring for two little children has taken away much of my time for contemplation but has also brought some of my favourite conversations about death because of their candid questions about what Jeremy being dead really means. I am determined to include Jeremy in their family and for him to be someone they can discuss easily.”
Do you think a sibling more than a decade down the track in their grief can provide any comfort to someone who has been bereaved, say, in the last five years? “In their first 12 months after Jeremy’s accident, a couple of people told me that they, too, had had a brother or sister die, but at least 10 years earlier. I felt shy about asking how they felt in case I was re-opening a healed wound, plus I wondered how their old grief could be relevant to my fresh and bleeding pain. I was naive. Some people are good at giving hope to grieving people, but because I have never found hope over Jeremy’s death, what I am better at providing is empathy and understanding.”