The groundbreaking book The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss was published in 2004. It’s a thoroughly engaging, journalistically complex, psychologically deep exploration of the impact of a sister’s or brother’s death on the remaining sibling—the first of it’s kind.
Author Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn is the younger sister of the boy in the plastic bubble. Her older brother Ted died at age seventeen after spending eight years living with a rare autoimmune disease in a sealed off hospital room.
DeVita-Raeburn’s account of the burial:
A few days later, I find myself standing at the edge of his grave, trying to picture him, my best friend, the ringmaster of my life, lying in a gunmetal casket suspended by straps over a hole in the earth. I feel numb, incredulous. Will he be lonely? Scared? The fact that it will rain and snow on him makes me crazy.
I make a plan. I will crawl in with him. If I can’t get the casket open, I will throw myself in the hole after him. I don’t care about the dirt, the bugs, breathing. I don’t want him to be alone. I don’t want to be left alone. I don’t want to go on, brotherless. I don’t know how. I might as well go on headless. He is my geography, my map. I need him.
A woman, mercifully faceless now, separates herself from the lingering crowd, takes me by the arm, and leans in close enough to that I can smell her perfume, see the lipstick on her teeth. ‘You’ll have to be very good now,’ she whispers intently, sadly. ‘Your parents are going through a lot.’ Her hand is a pincer around my elbow. Her words are a jab from a sharp knife. They make me feel selfish, ashamed.
It turns out most bereaved siblings, even those who become so in adulthood, live out this scene or something similar. I don’t remember a specific moment in this vein, but I did carry precisely that feeling she describes with me into adulthood.
Before reading The Empty Room I couldn’t articulate how any of my current life related to the loss of my sister. DeVita-Raeburn opened the door for me as I’m sure she has for many others. She started a public conversation that I hope to continue with Peanut Gallery.