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Herman Hermans

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Member Since: Sep, 2008

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On the death of a sibling
By Herman Hermans
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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A short story of a child's experience of the death of a sibling.

Herman was a normal child, having come to this earth in the usual way.  Wanted and conceived by loving parents.  For all intents and purposes, he was a well-adjusted baby and toddler.  Going through the normal stages of growth and experiencing what children should.  His parents were both at a seminary college when they married and he was born close to his father’s graduation.  Two dedicated parents with a strong believe in God and the purpose of Christian ministry.

Their first assignment was in the mission field.  Spreading and supporting Christ’s work amongst the indigenous people of Africa.  They moved to Southern Rhodesia when Herman was a baby.  Both parents were relatively young, twenty-four years.  The move to Rhodesia was their first assignment.  Eager to succeed in their ministry.  It would be normal to assume a certain level of preoccupation with their calling. 

I experience my father as someone who was preoccupied.  His own internal struggle for purpose and meaning drove him to find answers through his calling.  I experience him as someone who was there, yet not there.  Preoccupied.  He was present physically, his mental and emotional focus was somewhere else.

I do not experience Herman as an unhappy child.  I believe that he was well looked after by his mother and loved.  His physical needs were met.  He was fed, clothed and hugged.  He was doted on by grandparents and friends.

Herman’s mother wanted four children.   She fell pregnant with the second when the boy was one year old, giving birth to a second boy prematurely.  The brother did not survive long after birth.  His mother experienced some sadness at the event but rationalized it as being “not in God’s plan”.  The answer was to fall pregnant again, as quickly as possible.  The pregnancy did not seem to come into Herman’s conscious and he seemed to be unaffected by the event.

Herman has been described by his mother and grandparents as a “good” boy.  What is a “good” child?  The definition of a “good” child is debatable.  Is this one who does not make too many demands on his parents?  Does not need much guidance or correction? For a child to play by itself, not disturbing the parent?  Not demanding too much attention?  Is this one of the first emotional-behavioral learnings of the child?  In order to earn your love, attention and approval, you must be good?

In that case, does the child not experience an early dichotomy?  All children need and crave the love and attention of their parents. However, the more “good” you are, the less attention and closeness is experienced.  So does being “good” leave you deficient in the attention that you are craving?  I think that it does.

The third pregnancy came to termination a few months after Herman’s third birthday.  Little conscious memory exists of this event and one can only surmise how the child felt.  It is possible that the mother showed excitement at the arrival of the new baby.  She most probably talked to Herman about the pending arrival, preparing him for a sibling.  The chances are that Herman started to see the new arrival as a threat.  His sense of security and exclusivity was being jeopardized as his mother focused her joy on the pending arrival.  The likely result was feelings of jealousy and anger.  He would also have had the fear of being replaced and abandoned.

It is possible that Herman started to have fantasies for the new baby to “go away” so as to not threaten his position with his mother.  This would have been exacerbated by the fact that as a “good boy” he already felt deficient in love and attention. 

The joyful day eventually arrives, or shall we say the fateful day.  Herman’s sister is born only to die several hours later.  His mother initially experiences numbness and the lack of emotions until she eventually becomes overwhelmed by this traumatic event.  The grief is not only for one, but two babies.  The medical profession advises the mother that no future pregnancies will be possible.  The grief becomes profound.  The mother detaches emotionally from life as the grief becomes all-consuming.  The mother becomes socially isolated as the grief becomes the centre of her experiential existence.  Community and family support is minimal.  The father is not capable of providing the emotional support to the mother.  The strong Christian practice of prayer, faith and acceptance are not sufficient to assist with the mother’s condition.  Knowledge of grief counseling or other types of intervention is absent.

What happens to the remaining child?  Now a three-and-a-bit year old?  What does this child experience?  Where has the mother gone?  The mother’s numbing and emotional  internalization leaves him emotionally abandoned.  The child experiences the mother as having gone away.  Yes, she is still physically present but emotionally absent.  This was his fear in the first place, that he will be abandoned.  The child had fantasies that the baby should go away and this has now happened.  Not only has the child “gone away” but has died.  He feels responsible for the death of the child.  He also feels responsible for the state that his mother is in.  If he had not wished the new baby away, his mother would not have abandoned him.

What can the little boy do?  He does not have the language capability or the intelligence to communicate his own internal state.  His fantasies, intrusive thoughts and nightmares remain unexpressed.  The mother’s grief and own internal distress continues for months until the mother has a breakdown.  During this period, the boy experiences more and more detachment from the mother until the mother “dies” emotionally for the boy.  Not only did he wish the baby “dead”, but his actions have caused the mother to die as well.  He is now responsible for two cataclysmic events: the death of the baby and the emotional death of the mother.  But this is his secret.  Only he knows what he has done.

The child feels blame.  The child feels that he was responsible the baby’s death and also the emotional distress of his mother.  The child tries to “make things right” for the mother by trying his one learnt behavior, that of being a “good boy”.  This leads to even further isolation and increases the feeling of abandonment.

He is angry at the baby for dying and causing the distress in the first place.  He is angry at his mother for leaving him emotionally.  He cannot express the anger as this will further hurt the person that he loves most, his mother.  The anger remains unexpressed and internalized.

Life continues but the child has now emotionally disconnected from the mother.  The emotional bond between the father and son was never strongly established.  In any case, the father is preoccupied with his mission.  The family is living far away from family.  There is no support from other family members.  There are no siblings.

What is the child’s state of mind?  He is left to wander in a grey emotional realm.  The sky is lead grey.  The earth is scorched. No life. No flowers. No trees.   Not a blade of grass.  Directionless.  Hopeless. Powerless.  Sadness.  Despair.  Unreality.  No love.  No affection.  Life does not make sense.

 Just death.



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