There are times when my feelings are so strange to me that I don’t really understand what feelings they are, what name I should give them.

When my brother died, I smiled when I told my teacher. It wasn’t that I was happy. I mean, I didn’t really understand what had happened, the things that were happening around me. It all felt different and up until that point different had always been special. I didn’t quite understand different as being a bad thing.

I was only four then. I’m thirty-seven now. And my brother would be thirty-three. His absence has been one of the most defining things of my life and yet I still don’t really know how I feel about his death. He was too young to be known. I was too young to know him. And the rest all seems very strange and hypothetical.

I hold this ambiguous position in my family: I am both the youngest child and the middle child. And the part of me that is the youngest feels that Paul would have taken my place and made everything so utterly different that it’s just unfathomable to think about. And the part of me that is the middle child feels his absence all the time, this ghost of a brother, this outline of another that never got coloured in.

Can a four year old grieve? I don’t know if I could or did and yet I feel like I’ve never stopped. I’ll never forget the man in our house, saying to another in front of me, isn’t it a good thing she’s too young to understand. Something I’ll never say in front of a child. A moment of complete fracture, hearing myself being talked about, perceiving a gap in my own comprehension. The earliest moment when I simultaneously felt embarrassed by all I didn’t grasp and yet squirmed on the inside to assert that I wasn’t, in fact, uncomprehending.

The thing is I don’t understand it much better today. I don’t think, oh I get it now — why he died, where he went, how it derailed my family in some ways forever, what it would have been like otherwise. In fact, I maybe get it less now. Back then, I swallowed the explanations given to children that I don’t believe in any more — that God missed Paul and called him back to heaven. There was some sense to that. Maybe that’s why I smiled. Maybe I did think it was special.

And I don't understand it better today because at that moment it was simple to see how Paul's death had forked the road for my entire family. But now... now that road has been travelled so far, has been forked so many times, that it’s impossible to imagine all the ways it would have been different. And it’s impossible to want to change that first big fork. After all, everything we’ve known, our whole lives, fall from that spot.

But more: Can I grieve for Paul when I don't know who he was or would have been? I only remember a baby in a striped orange onesie with pom-poms down the front, a little clown in my Mammy’s arms. I don’t know what combination of Flanagan, Maher or Conway he would have been. Would he have had my eyes (my only nice feature)? It’s as impossible for me to think about Paul's 33rd birthday as it is for me to think about Joyce turning 132 on February 2nd (I don’t even really get why we tweet Happy Birthdays to dead celebrities).

And when I miss Paul it’s often in selfish ways. I think of there being somebody more like me in my family, of having somebody who was on my side at times. I think of saying and doing things for a little brother that were never said and done for me. I'm grieving for myself over something I never had and will never have. Those wishes will always mark an absence of Paul. And I wonder about the ungranted wishes the rest of my family have too, the different things Paul has stood for for each of us.

Sometimes - mostly when I don’t want to say all these messy things - I too say what that the man in our house said; that I was too young to understand. As if I've been immune to sadness all along because I was so young.

But some nights I just cry. And I don’t know if I’m crying for me or for Paul, or for Mum or Dad, or for us all. Or just for loss. Or just for loneliness. And when I cry like that, not comprehending what it is I'm feeling, I’m four again. Only now I don’t think I’ll grow up and understand it any better.


  1. Jane, this was so heartbreaking and touching and my words can't do it justice. Thank you for sharing this, and I owe you one huge hug next time I'm in town. <3

  2. I'm so sorry. You lost so much, at such a vulnerable age. Your parents became different people. It is very hard for kids that age to know that their hostile feelings did not cause harm that comes to family members. Especially to a young rival. And you loved him, were lonely without him. He was your baby too.

    1. It's important to me to be quite clear and point out that you're projecting ideas onto my story and life that I simply didn't express here. And those ideas are in fact quite insensitive and hurtful to read (though I don't think you intended that). There was no hostility, no rivalry between me and Paul and I didn't - and don't - carry any feelings that I caused his death.

    2. I'm truly sorry, and very ashamed with myself. I did not mean to be all certain about your feelings then or now. I'd initially gone on, trying to be empathetic, talking about my family and kids I now know, but it wasn't coherent. Unfortunately, I didn't delete enough. The relationship is very real, trauma registers, and I'm sorry for your loss. Had I been half as careful as this subject warrants, I'd have left it at that. Again, I'm so sorry.

    3. No worries. I could tell your intention was kind... it was just important for me to clarify. Please don't feel bad... it's all good!

  3. Jane,
    I think you are much more in touch with your emotions than you give yourself credit for. Other people who have gone through loss repress it and ignore it. You are not afraid to feel those feelings, even though at times you may not be able to make sense of them. It makes you a very strong person. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Oh, thank you Jody. I think sometimes that I'm ready to write about something it usually means that I've worked through it a lot. Trust me, there are many things I'm not ready to write about, not so strong about. xxx

  4. A lovely post, Jane. I think about my father every day. It never goes away. How can it? (I was going to say, and should it? But you wrote a great post a while back about not should-ing over ourselves the stuff in brackets doesn't count...)

    1. Ha! I don't think it should either... it's part of us and I think we should give voice to that. I sometimes feel like I should be long over things I'm not. I seem to have a very slow way of recovering from different kinds of hurt and heartbreak. But I think that kind of "recovery" talk is a lie anyway. We all carry these things and we give them voice or we don't, but they're always there.

  5. I check into your blog from time to time but have never felt to comment.
    Today you have struck a nerve.
    How can the death of someone you never knew affect you?
    My mother lost a full term infant - a boy - another brother (I am left with only one) less than a year before I was conceived. I have struggled with depression & anxiety since my 30's and have a productive professional, personal and artistic life. But I wonder, often - how would it have been if my pre-existing family had not experience that ripping and rippling loss.

    Poetry and my prose-y ramblings always help a bit in working it out. I think I felt a need to mark his place in this world & in our family.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I have other moody musings at:
    I will leave you with my poem about thoughts similar to yours.

    I love your gentle quiet melancoly and the fact that you let yourself "enjoy" it.


    Sometimes I think of you
    and your tiny macerated parts
    and how you left us all
    so early
    you left a hole
    left whole
    but some part of you behind

    She feels your absence
    although I never knew it
    til the year of your deadbirth
    coincided with that other boy's
    the one from long ago
    and I was shocked
    that she still marked
    the event

    But how can a mother

    And I wonder
    at your stain on all of us
    the residue of you

    If you hadn't left
    would the only son
    still be in his mess
    dragging others with him?

    Would the elder
    have felt the need
    so strongly that
    she persued the tiny seed
    so relentlessly
    regardless of the cost?

    The pall of your failure
    to be born
    your stillness and decay
    hangs over us

    I ponder over the darkness
    that remained
    in the womb we both

    What left with you
    that she was not able
    to give to me
    and the straggler
    how she struggles
    to move to motivate
    to understand
    to grow

    Quiet and watchful
    the crowd making her laugh
    and smile as she sits
    and waits for it to come
    to her

    And the man
    as sweet as he is
    the one who says the words
    I need to hear
    never speaks words of you, but
    he must remember you

    I remember you
    although I never met you
    never knew of your existence
    (yet) I remember you

  6. Thank you for writing this, Jane.

  7. Yes, absolutely, a four-year-old can grieve. She does. I am glad you would never say that a child would not understand. Thank you for this quiet and lovely post.


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