In the thirty two years since my brother died no-one has ever asked me to write about him or the grief of losing a sibling. So it’s with some trepidation that I sit down to put my thoughts into words because I know that in doing so I will feel the searing pain of loss all over again. I’m frightened what it will open up in me, what I might have suppressed, and yet when Linda invited me to contribute an article to The Good Grief Trust I knew I could not refuse. The tears are flowing now as I knew they would. The thing with grief is there is no finish line, no point when you are done with it, no time when you can say you are ‘over it’. Grief and recovery from loss is not linear, but eventually you discover a new way of existing without the person you lost and carry on. ‘There’s been an accident, Jonathan has been hurt, we don’t have many details at the moment. You probably don’t need to come home’ my mother reassures me. It’s 28th January 1984, I’m working in London, a ‘career girl’, that’s how everyone refers to me. Despite my mother’s reassurances I can’t stay in London, I need to be with my parents, so I drop everything and drive the two hours it takes me to get to the South coast in a blurry haze of frenzied fear.
The next 24 hours are confusing as we try to gleam more information from the Ministry of Defence. Jonathon is serving on board HMS Fife on a tour of duty in the Falkland Islands, a missile has misfired, he has been caught in the efflux, and he’s sustained 60% burns. We didn’t know then what we know now, hardly anyone survives when they suffer 60% burns. This bit hurts, my chest is tight, I can’t stop the tears now. I’m back in 1984, I’m a 20 year old young woman again and the world has just slipped on its axis. My parents endured the most uncomfortable and horrific flight on a military aircraft to the Falkland Islands and somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, just before they landed, Jonathan slipped away. He died on 1st February 1984 at just 18 years old, miles away from home alone, without his family around him. My parents didn’t get to see him one last time, my mother never got to cradle him and tell him how much he was loved, and from that day on our family of four was never the same again.
It’s the summer of 1980 or maybe ’81. It’s a warm sultry evening. We are at a neighbour’s house party, my parents, Jonathan and I are all dancing to Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’. We are in high spirits, laughing and singing along with the lyrics and Jonathan and I exchange conspiratorial looks, we’re used to our parents being the life and soul of any gathering. It’s the last clear memory I have of us as a family foursome. In the early years after Jonathan died I would see him everywhere. Every tall dark haired young man was Jonathon. I’d catch up with him, loiter until he turned around, and pretend I wasn’t watching. I’d see him out of the corner of my eye, on a bike, long languid legs. I’d steal myself for the moment to hug him and say ‘I knew there had to be a terrible mistake’ but it was never him, just someone with a passing similarity. I don’t see him anymore, although sometimes I’m reminded of him when I look at my sons.
There are few people alive who remember him now, which hurts wow that really hurts. When I die who will speak of him? Who will testify to Jonathan ever having lived? I want to do justice to the memory of my brother but I feel guilty that I can’t remember everything about him. Jonathon was tall, thin, dark and of course handsome. As brother and sister we got used to hearing our names sing-songed together ‘Jacqueline and Jonathon’, the memory makes me smile. He had a wicked sense of humour and was a great mimic. Jonathan made friends easily, he was affable, funny and popular. He rode his bike everywhere and would disappear for hours on end, he loved photography, and was a skilled gymnast. They nicknamed him ‘Spider’ when he joined the Royal Navy. Spider, my little brother all arms and legs, skinny as a rake but strong and agile.
Thousands of miles separated my parents from Jonathon when he was lying in a hospital bed, and when he died they were thousands of miles away from me. All of us alone, in the wrong place at the wrong time in our darkest hour. I thought it would kill my parents, it nearly did. The man and woman who walked through the door, on their return from the Falkland Islands bore no relation to the people I knew. I wanted my parents back but these people, they looked like ghosts, barely communicated, and I hardly recognised them. My real mother and father didn’t come back for a long time. No-one ever asks how you’re feeling when you’re the sibling of someone who dies. They ask how your parents are. If I could help one person dealing with grief it would be this, remember the children, the siblings, they will try and shield parents. Give them space and permission to grieve too though. I was angry when a friend cried at Jonathon’s cremation, I cursed her thinking dammit I can’t cry and I’m his sister, if I can keep it together then why can’t you? I thought I had to be strong for my parents.
My last memory of Jonathan. I’m on the beach, in the sea. The day has been long and hot and suddenly I can hear my name being called so I look around. I spot Jonathan on the promenade waving, he’s silhouetted against the blue summer sky. I’m beaming, waving and splashing in the water back at him. He’s home on leave and I’m back for a few days. As final memories go it’s pretty good and certainly better than thinking of him lifeless as he was repatriated to Brize Norton. Grief teaches you what matters in life and what is trivial. I avoid people who create unnecessary drama because there’s enough tragedy in the world without inflicting more on anyone. I’ve learned that love and family are everything and while no-one can replace anyone my children, and now my granddaughter, have given me a focus for the love that I can no longer give Jonathan.
My name is Jacqueline, I had a little brother called Jonathan and if I close my eyes I can see him waving to me, on a summer’s day from my beach.