My brother Andy died five days before my eleventh birthday.
He was nine years old, and we were very close. His health had been medically complex since infancy, but still his death came as a huge shock to me. It was also my first experience with grief.
At the beginning of WHEN SEA BECOMES SKY, main character Bex is dealing with a lot of challenges. The island where she and her family live is experiencing a drought, her brother has stopped talking, Mom seems tired, and Dad is working all the time. When the receding water in the salt marsh reveals a mysterious statue, Bex and Davey are spurred into action as they try to determine its origin. Their efforts intensify when they learn of a planned construction project that will forever change the marsh and the island. She is afraid of what will happen if she loses this special place that she and her brother hold so dear.
Grief can come in all kinds of ways, from all kinds of losses. Bex’s story is fictional, but it was inspired in large part by the grief I felt after my brother’s death. Children and adults experience grief differently. I wrote WHEN SEA BECOMES SKY to help readers understand grief, and the unique way it affects children.
Here are five things I wish someone had told me about grief when my brother died.
1. Grief can be isolating. A person who is grieving may feel like others don’t “get” the emotions and magnitude of their loss. For children, this experience is amplified because most of their peers will have had limited experience with death and grief. I didn’t know how to be “different” in this way, so I kept a lot of my feelings inside.
2. Grieving children may need reassurance that it’s safe to let out their emotions. It’s incredibly common for children to worry about upsetting their grieving parents. Even though my parents arranged for me to see a counselor, I didn’t trust that my words wouldn’t get back to my parents and upset them. Children should know that a therapist’s office should feel like a safe space--and if one isn’t a good fit, they can try someone else.
3. Memories have their own calendar. After Andy died, I always seemed to get depressed around my birthday. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I understood that those feelings were connected with his death. Now, I never let August sneak up on me--I consciously plan a day where I acknowledge Andy privately and make sure I’m in touch with any emotions I’m experiencing.
4. Good and bad things happen to “good people.” Sadly, all people will experience loss in their lives. If something bad happens, it doesn’t mean that a person is bad or being punished in any way.
5. As children progress developmentally, it’s very common to revisit certain key moments in their life. Sometimes I would hit a certain age and all of a sudden be able to have some insight into losing Andy. It was like my new, “stronger” brain needed to go over the events again and reach a new level of understanding.
One of my biggest fears about losing Andy was that I really would lose him. I didn’t know that just as Bex’s family finds each other to process the difficult things they are dealing with, that sharing my feelings with others would connect me to him forever.
I didn’t know that I’d always remember the exact sound of his laugh.
I could never have predicted that I’d see his features in my children’s faces.
Even as my heart has expanded to love new friends and family, there will always be that special, Andy-shaped space that belongs to him alone.
I never have to worry about leaving him behind, because he is a part of me.
GILLIAN McDUNN is the award-winning author of Caterpillar Summer, The Queen Bee and Me, These Unlucky Stars, Honestly Elliott, and the forthcoming When Sea Becomes Sky. Her books have been named Best Books of the Year by Kirkus and Parents Magazine, chosen as Junior Library Guild gold standard selections, and nominated to nine state reading lists, including the Texas Bluebonnets Master List. Her most recent book, Honestly Elliott, received four starred reviews and received the Schneider Family Award Honor Book Award from the American Library Association.
Gillian loves to paint, do crosswords with very sharp pencils, visit different beaches, bake gluten-free treats, and spend time with her family. Visit Gillian at www.gillianmcdunn.com or on IG/Twitter @gillianmcdunn.