My big brother died unexpectedly from an open heart surgery in June 1997. He was 4 years old, turning 5 in September. I was only 3 years old when he died on the operation table in Bogota, Colombia. Only a parent that has actually lost a child can understand the pain of losing a child. Watching your first born suffer from an illness is difficult, but to be given the hope that they will live a long healthy life after treatment and surgery and then have them die during their last surgery can be mortal. My mother nearly died from sadness after my brother’s death; she went into a black hole of pain. Meanwhile, my father went into a denial so deep that it masked itself as acceptance; he walked into the closet of denial and hung a sign on the door that labeled that denial as “acceptance”. With the death of a sibling, especially at such a young age, several things occur. As a 3-year-old, I did not understand where my brother had gone, or why my mother withdrew into herself, or why my father was pretending that it was normal for my brother to be missing. My brother’s early death came with some serious psychological trauma, not only for my parents but for me as well.
One of the effects of his death had was separation anxiety. As a child, between the ages of 4 to 8, I could not lose my parents from my sight without going into full panic mode. I always felt like if I wasn’t with my parents I would never seeing them again. My fear of my parents leaving me or dying went beyond any I have seen with other kids. This fear took a toll on my childhood. At school I would cry for the first hour in the mornings, once my tears had dried out I wouldn’t eat or talk. I had terrible anxiety that made me feel like I had to go to the bathroom every 5 or 10 minutes, and if I wasn’t allowed to go I’d cry some more. My teachers thought I was being disruptive, they never seemed to think there might be something more. In addition, I did not deal with change very well. I hated starting new school years because I wouldn’t have the same classmates or teachers. I felt like I would never see them again. At my friends’ house, I’d be fine as long as I could hear my mom’s voice in the living room. As soon as my parents left the tears would start streaming down my face. I wanted to control my fear and anxiety so badly, but I just felt my stomach drop and my heart grow heavy. If the sunset and my parents weren’t there to pick me up, I’d start imagining getting a phone call from the hospital letting me know that I was left alone again.
At age 8, I learned to swallow the sense of inevitable doom. Around this age, I began to ask more questions about my brother, what he was like, when he died, how he died, why we never talked about him at home. With the understanding that my brother was born with a heart defect and that he died during a surgery, I began to fear accidents and illnesses more than death itself. During that time, I also learned that my brother was, apparently, “too good for this world”. He was 4-years-old, but he was perfectly articulate, witty, funny, social, handsome, and brilliant. He began to pray the rosary at 3; he prayed it all jumbled, but he prayed it. He knew the Our Father before he died. He was known by everyone in our little hometown in Colombia. Everyone loved him. And so, from 8 years of age to 12 I tried to make up for my brother’s absence. I pretended to love sports to please my dad, I pretended I loved school and my classmates to please my mom, I apologized for everything I did, even if I hadn’t done anything wrong. What is even worse is that I did so, because I was afraid that my parents would love my brother more or wish that I would have been the one that died on the operation table, and not him. He was apparently much more valuable; how could I increase my value? How could I compete with a ghost? For 4 years I tried to compete. For 4 exhausting years I took the role of son and daughter. For 4 years I completely lost myself. So by the time I was 12 I had completely forgotten what the purpose of living was, and so began a depression that would haunt me for the rest of my teenage years.
At 13 my life did an 180-degree turn. I was at a workshop for Latino teenagers where they talked about family, drugs, gangs, suicide, and depression. One of the talks they gave went into the relationship I had with my parents. When I heard the speaker ask if I had ever felt like my parents didn’t love me I completely lost it. My heart broke into pieces, and it felt like someone had just told me that my brother was dead. Something about really thinking about my relationship with my parents tore my heart. Realizing that they loved an illusion that I had created from fear of abandonment was like having someone dunk my head into a bucket of ice water and just leave it there. I felt so suffocated in the lie I had created. As if the version that I had been playing to make up for my brother’s loss was choking the life out of the real me. I couldn’t even feel the person that I truly was. As if 13 wasn’t tough enough.
For about 7 years I have been mourning my brother’s death. It has been something so interrupted, so misunderstood, and so difficult to face that I still struggle to let go. It has been 7 years of confronting emotions that were buried in the depth of my soul. I have dug my mother out of her depression and finally got my father to admit his pain. Even though it seems that I have managed to fix everyone else, I still find tears streaming down my face during a song, or my voice cracking when I tell a story about him.
Even today, I have trouble remembering why I do what I do. Am I overcompensating for my brother’s void, or am I setting my own goals and pursuing my happiness? The truth is that I am just now finishing the grieving for my brother’s death, and I am just now discovering emotions and talking about it with my parents. When someone you love dies, a little bit of you goes with them.