Thank you for joining us on our first Virtual Book Tour. Today we Welcome Jean Reagan, the author of Always My Brother. We are delighted that Jean has been able to provide us with her insights and suggestions on helping children through the grieving process. Please feel free to comment or share your own experiences with grief and the healing process in the comment section below.
Always My Brother is featured on our Helpful Books page under Grief Support for Children.
And here is our interview with Jean Reagan…
What inspired you to write the book Always My Brother?
I lost my 19-year old son, John, on November 3, 2005 from a drug overdose. As our now family-of-three began our grieving journey, I realized that Jane, my 17-year old daughter’s loss seemed to be discounted. Everyone was concerned about how I—the grieving mother—was doing and maybe how my husband was doing. In fact, Jane fielded many questions about her parents’ grief, but not her own. Few people recognized what a loss she had suffered. My casual research confirmed that sibling loss is often considered the unrecognized grief.
As an author, I write picture books for young readers. So this seemed like an opportunity to write a book that could tell a story from the surviving sister’s point of view. There are already many excellent books for older readers about sibling loss, drug issues, etc, but there are very few books for younger children about losing a sibling. I knew there was a need, so it was a natural thing to write. The children in my book are younger than my own kids, so that the story would speak to the target age. And it is not a story about drugs.
For me, one unexpected benefit in writing this book was that I was able to “rewind” John’s life to a younger, happier age when he wasn’t tortured by drug addiction.
How did losing her brother change your daughter’s life?
They were only 19-months apart in age and their interests and temperaments were a great match. This meant they were very good friends all along. We didn’t own a TV when they were little, so they created many imaginary worlds and games together. And, even when John was struggling with drugs, Jane would light up like a Christmas tree when John came home. So, in the immediate run, Jane lost her main buddy.
In the long run, Jane lost that one person who was most likely to be there her whole life. All events in her future—significant or minor, triumphs or disappointments—she would not be sharing with him. Another way to look at it is that, given our ages, my husband and I lost John for maybe 30 or 40 years. She lost him for over 60 years.
A big shift for her, too, was that she instantly became an only child. Who could she laugh with or commiserate with about her parents’ ridiculous or frustrating behavior?
Children tend to handle grief differently than adults, what suggestions do you have for parents on how to talk to their children about the grief they are experiencing?
I’m hoping my book can be used to help families openly talk about grief. I intentionally put in many scenes we experienced in our grief journey. John’s empty seat was so glaring, especially in car rides and at the dinner table. I show sadness and anger, and the family’s desperate desire for things to return to normal, which of course they can’t. Becky, the sister in the book, feels guilty when she has a delightful time at a birthday party and “forgot to miss John.” I wanted to portray and affirm all these confusing, contradictory emotions. Perhaps my book can offer an indirect way to discuss what is happening in a child’s own family.
It’s important, too, to let kids know that the gripping, paralyzing pain of grief does lessen over time. The story in the book does not end until a year has passed. Slowly Becky recaptures her joy of soccer while at the same time honoring John’s memory. I wanted to offer authentic, realistic hope for kids who are suffering.
In our own family, at one point—and it took a bit of emotional courage on my part because Jane was feeling quite angry—I said to her, “Jane, we are so, so sorry we weren’t able to save your brother.” It was my best attempt to acknowledge to her that we absolutely empathize with her loss, over which she had no control. For me and her, that conversation was one of those “break-through” moments.
What suggestions do you have for family and friends on how to talk to a child that has lost a sibling?
I am hoping my book will help friends, extended family, classmates, and teachers who are observing the grief of a family by:
- providing a window for them to see and better understand the internal grief
- creating opportunities for conversation
- fostering courage in them to reach out to the grieving child or family
A friend who had lost a child before we lost John had these words of wisdom: “You cannot make the grieving person any sadder than they already are. So, don’t worry about saying the wrong thing.” This gave me the courage to reach out to her. One way I did this was to write her a short letter once a week for a year. (Letters can be read whenever someone is ready.) She appreciated this so much that at the end of the year, she had me retype all the letters into one long journal entry so she could add it to the memory book. After we lost John another friend used these words with me, “Ask me to do what you would only ask a sister to do.” This gave me permission to ask her for help.
Simple gestures can be very helpful: a nod, a smile, a sincere glance, a light hug.
Generally, bereaved people love to hear that you’ve thought about their loved one. Don’t hesitate to talk about them. And don’t be afraid if the bereaved person tears up a bit. My bereaved friend reassured me once by saying, “You didn’t make me cry. You saw me cry.” In other words, we shared a gift of connecting in a real way.
How does losing a sibling differ from losing a friend or another family member?
A sibling, more than anyone else, is someone we expect to be around for the entirety of our life. Sharing the same history, the same family culture, and the same generation are significant as you face the future. You can make new friends and you can make new family members (through marriage and birth), but you cannot make a new sibling. You lose that person for the entirety of your life.
But I think all different kinds of losses (divorce, physical debilitation, other deaths, infertility, etc.) share an emotional journey that can help illuminate the path for others, regardless of the kind or severity of the loss they experience. Grief is not a competition but an opportunity to help heal together.
Is there any one thing that your family or friends did for you that assisted you through the grieving process? (i.e. a special card someone sent you, a favorite place they took you, etc.)
Honest, connecting conversations were very helpful to me. If someone says, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m so, so sorry” that’s very comforting. By the same token, my being able to say, “I don’t want to talk about my grief now,” helped me know I got to decide when and how to “talk grief” and when I could simply try to enjoy aspects of life when I was with others.
It’s very healing to hear stories about John’s positive influence on others while he lived and as his memory lives on.
Do you have any suggestions on how children can assist other children through the grieving process?
Continue to include the grieving children in fun activities. Friends should also feel comfortable talking about the lost loved one around the grieving children.
Do you plan to write any other children’s books?
Yes, in fact I recently signed a contract with Knopf for a humorous picture book titled, HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA. If I only had one book, I’m glad it’s ALWAYS MY BROTHER. But it feels great to be sending a totally silly, happy book into the world, as well.
For the story behind the book, please visit www.jeanreagan.com.
Always My Brother is featured on our Helpful Books page under Grief Support for Children.
Always My Brother
Written by Jean Reagan; Illustrated by Phyllis Pollema-Cahill
Hardcover, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-88448-313-7
9 x 10, 32 pages, illustrations
Children / Grieving; Grades 3-6
Becky and her brother John were best buddies, telling jokes, caring for their dog Toby, and playing soccer. John was always there to cheer her up and help her out—until he died. Becky wishes everything could go back to the way it was. When she is surprised and feels guilty about enjoying a friend’s birthday party, her mom wraps reassuring arms around her and says, “Don’t you think he’d want you to laugh, even now?” She gradually realizes that she can still enjoy the things that they used to do together and that the memories of John continue to make him part of their family. Always My Brother is a sensitive, realistic story about the process of grief, acceptance, and recovery. Phyllis Pollema-Cahill’s lovely illustrations bring readers right into the heart of Becky’s family as they struggle to move forward.
Jean Reagan lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, Peter, and daughter, Jane. Their beloved son and brother, John, died in 2005. Born in Alabama, Jean spent most of her childhood in Japan. Since graduating from Earlham College, she has worked as a community organizer, a union activist, and a writer. She cherishes her years as a full-time mother when she also worked at her children’s public school, the Open Classroom. In the summers, her family lives in a tiny, remote cabin in Grand Teton National Park where she and Peter serve as volunteer backcountry rangers. Bears visit them frequently.
Phyllis Pollema-Cahill grew in rural Minnesota. She went to work as an assistant artist in a small design studio right after high school, and ended up being creative director for one of the McGraw-Hill divisions. She later received a degree in illustration from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and has been illustrating full-time for children since December 1995. She has illustrated over forty children’s books and many magazine stories, as well as textbooks, activity books, posters, and book covers. Phyllis lives in the Colorado countryside with her husband and their two cats. She has three grown step-children and three step-grandchildren.
Teachers Take Note
Further resources for educators (also useful for parents, grief centers, etc.), are available on the Tilbury House website:
Always My Brother Virtual Book Tour
Nov. 1 — Welcome from Tilbury House – http://bit.ly/354orJ
Nov. 2 — Griefcase – http://griefcase.blogspot.com/
Nov. 3 — Author Jean Reagan’s website — http://www.jeanreagan.com/Blog_tour.htm
Nov. 4 — Healing the Grieving Heart – http://www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley081309.mp3
Nov. 5 — Grief Speaks – www.griefspeaks.com
Nov. 6 — Chronicles of an Infant Bibliophile – http://infantbibliophile.blogspot.com/
Nov. 7 — heartfeltwords4kids – http://heartfeltwords4kids.blogspot.com/
Nov. 8 — I Did Not Know What to Say – http://ididnotknowwhattosay.com/
Nov. 9 — Moziesme – http://moziesme.blogspot.com/
Nov. 10 — Anastasia Suen – http://asuen.wordpress.com/
Nov. 11 – Maw Books -http://blog.mawbooks.com
Nov. 12 — Author Emily Wing Smith – http://www.emilywingsmith.com/
Nov. 13 — Bri Meets Books – http://www.brimeetsbooks.com