I am thrilled to post this interview of author Jean Reagan, who is the author of “Always My Brother.” “Always My Brother” is a story for children who are dealing with sibling death. This is the first book I have read on this specific form of grief, and I highly recommend it for use with clients, and for parents who may be dealing with their own child’s death. Please visit Jean’s website and read the Story Behind section if you would like more information about their journey of grief, and inspiration for this book.
1. What inspired you to make this a children’s book?
First, some background. In 2005 after a roller-coaster year of hopes and setbacks, our nineteen-year old son, John, died of a drug overdose Jane, our seventeen-year old daughter became an only child. As we faced our grief, I watched how the death of a sibling is discounted. Well-meaning people offered me (and my husband) comfort, but rarely seemed to acknowledge Jane’s tragic loss.
Through research I learned that sibling death is often considered the unrecognized grief.Surviving siblings are sometimes even admonished to be “extra good,” because their parents are grieving.In “ALWAYS MY BROTHER,” I wanted to honor siblings for the devastating loss they face, to normalize the contradictory emotions they experience, and to offer them realistic hope.
I chose to write a picture book rather than a teen book for several reasons.A. There are many teen books about loss of all kinds, including sibling death.B. There are no picture books aimed at a young audience on this topic.(In fact, a “Needed Subjects” column in a writers’ magazine expressed a need for picture books about the death of a sibling.)C. As an author, picture books are what I write.
On a personal level, I wrote this book because I wanted my daughter to understand that at some level I understand the utter devastation of her loss.
Because “ALWAYS MY BROTHER” is aimed at children it does not exactly mirror our own family story.I made the characters younger and did not specify the cause of death.Yet the book reflects the emotions and experiences of our grief journey.For example, I made sure to include a returning-to-school scene, because that is a particularly tough step for grieving children.
For the grieving child or family I wanted to:
- portray and affirm their often confusing, contradictory emotions.
- offer realistic hope that with the passage of time the gripping, paralyzing pain would ease as the family members cherish and honor the memories of their loved one.
- create opportunities for shared conversations.
For friends, extended family, classmates, and teachers observing the grief I wanted to:
- provide a window for them to see and better understand the internal grief.
- create opportunities for conversation.
- foster courage in them to reach out to the grieving child or family.
2. Have you written other books before?
I had written over ten picture-book manuscripts, all silly and quirky. “ALWAYS MY BROTHER” was the first one I sold. When I told my daughter I had sold a manuscript, this one, she hugged me and said, “That’s the one I wanted you to sell.”
My second book, “HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA,” will be published by Knopf in the spring of 2012, in time for Fathers’ Day! And, yes, it’s silly and quirky.
3. Besides writing, what else do you do (do you have another job, stay at home, etc..?)
For four months each summer, my husband and I serve as wilderness volunteers in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. We live in a patrol cabin that has no running water or electricity. There are bars on the windows, to keep out the bears. To reach the cabin you hike (or canoe) four miles from the nearest parking lot. Our patrol area has twelve shoreline campsites scattered across three lakes. We love being surrounded by nature, and we love visiting with hikers and campers from all over the world.
The rest of the year I write and enjoy modern conveniences!
4. What is the main lesson you want children to gain from this book?
I want grieving children to feel acknowledged for their loss, comforted that their contradictory, raw emotions are “okay” and normal, and reassured that their excruciating pain will lighten as time goes on because they carry their loved one’s memory with them always, in their daily life.
5. What would you tell another parent going through the loss of a child?
If possible, seek out peers for you and your child. By “peers” I mean other parents who have lost children and other children who have lost siblings. Many hospitals and therapy centers have grief groups for all ages. Compassionate Friends is a national non-profit organization that offers comfort, resources, and workshops for grieving families. There are local chapter meetings throughout every state. I am also deeply grateful to my two friends who had lost children before me, because they helped “light the path” on my grief journey. They still do.
Writing in a journal always felt like a chore to me. Yet, after John died, I found it very helpful. I didn’t write poetically or lyrically. In fact mostly I made lists. Lots and lots of lists. And they were most definitely NOT “to do” or “should” lists, but instead were “memory,” “wailing,” or “questions” lists. (The latest issue of Grief Digest includes my article, “Baby Steps for the Non-Journaler.”)
Keep talking.Within your immediate family, your broader family.With friends.With colleagues, neighbors, and co-workers.
6. Are you working on any new writing projects for children?
I am in the early stages of two picture book manuscripts: one about a father and toddler’s outing to a park and another one about a new sibling. Fingers crossed that these will become books one day!
7. What would you like for child therapists to know about counseling a child and family who has lost a sibling/child?
Our therapist told my husband and me, “Be gentle with yourself.And be gentle with each other.”We both found that very helpful, especially as we faced particularly difficult and dark moments.
We all grieve differently; there is no right or wrong way to grieve.That can be a hard thing for couples (or family members) to understand.For example, my husband has never read my book.He is very supportive in every way, (He wrote John’s obituary, he faced the media, he created my website, etc.) yet he does not have the emotional strength to face the fictional grief in my book.He is already dealing with all he can.I am perfectly fine and understanding of this.We all do what we can and don’t do what we can’t.
A book I found particularly helpful is A Broken Heart Still Beats: After Your Child Dies. Two grieving mothers (a journalist and psychotherapist) organize a remarkable compilation of poetry, fiction, essays, and journal entries about the pain of losing a child.
8. What are the top 3 things that helped your family through this loss?
Our family has always been open and honest that drug overdose is the cause of John’s death.For us, this decision has made conversations about his death and our grief easier, more helpful, and less guarded.Grieving is devastating enough without coping with layers of judgment or shame!
Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays are particularly difficult.(As much as I heard this, I was still surprised, over and over.)Creating alternative activities while hanging onto cherished traditions is tricky, but critical to try to balance.Anticipating and planning ahead helps.We joined other families in their celebrations or we traveled to other places to help “mix up” our traditions.
Just like the family of four in “ALWAYS MY BROTHER,” our family became a family of three.I remember telling the therapist that our family now felt like a three-legged dog, but then right away adding, “But not happy, like all three-legged dogs seem to be.”The three-legged dog became my analogy for how our family of three will always be missing that “fourth,” but that we would learn to “walk” again and to be happy.Consequently I included the three-legged dog metaphor in my book.