Monday Mournings: The Death of a Brother

My name is Jim Wright, but most people just call me... erm... Jim. I'm a native of northeast Alabama, Navy veteran and retired from a large Pathology laboratory in Birmingham, Alabama. I now live in Amman, Jordan with my Companion, Zeek and our psychotic cat, Umm Khalil. These days I spend most of my time writing, blogging, and Tweeting and just self-published my first book, New Yesterdays at Create Space.
I spent about twenty or so years, on and off, in the funeral industry. Those years were some of the most rewarding of my life and certainly helped to make me the man I am today. (You can read my interviews with Jim here and here.)

DW: Who was the person that died?
JW: My younger brother, Tony.

DW: How old were you at the time?
JW: I was 17 years old.

DW: How old was Tony?
JW: 16.

DW: Was it a sudden death or did you know it was going to happen?
JW: It was "suddenly expected." He came down with cold and flu symptoms about three weeks before he died. His condition progressed fairly rapidly from "nothing to be concerned about" to a comatose state. We were advised not to hope for recovery about a week before he died. We finally disconnected the life support systems and allowed him to die, still without a firm diagnosis. The autopsy revealed that he had died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. It was the first recorded case of that condition east of the Mississippi River. RMSF attacks the body universally which led the doctors on a merry chase after pneumonia, renal failure, respiratory failure and so many others. They even debated whether Tony had contracted some kind of viral encephalitis or meningitis.

DW: Did you and Tony ever talk about their death?
JW: Death wasn't a subject of conversation with teenage boys in those days.

DW: Had you experienced any other deaths in your personal life before your brother died?
JW: Yes. My sister died from SIDS when I was about 4 and my maternal Grandmother and an uncle when I was ten.

DW: Were people supportive of your grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
JW: Quite supportive actually. I come from a very large and, in those days, close-knit family. From the time Tony's condition became serious we were never left alone. My Father's sisters and brothers, as well as my cousins were all there on a daily and nightly basis offering support, kind words and just being there. After the funeral, they didn't desert us. I'd have to say that my extended family helped me to get through that very difficult grieving process in a way that no professional counselor could ever have done.

DW: Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with this person?
JW: I don't think so. I only regret we didn't have more time together. We were fourteen months apart in age and naturally very close. I added him as a character in my recently published book. The months I spent writing that story, I felt he was right there beside me helping flesh out the story. After thirty-nine years, he is still with me and I think about him surprisingly often.

DW: Was he buried or cremated?
JW: He is buried out in the countryside, in our family cemetery, under a tall cedar tree.

DW: Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
JW: I think I learned that having a support system in place is critical to the grieving process. That being said, I also think that grieving is a very private affair that you ultimately have to face alone, in the dark. All the support, kind words, and warm gestures are necessary to get through the initial stages but finally it has to be faced and accepted alone.

DW: Were any songs played at the memorial that were important to your brother?
JW: I have to honestly say that I can't remember what music was played. The thing I remember most is my Dad saying that he didn't want a "traditional" funeral. He explained that, in his opinion, funerals were torture, in those days, with a person or group getting up and singing a song about joyous, heavenly reunions and then a preacher getting up and wringing the tears out of the family and friends. Back then, funerals in my area of the South had a minimum of three preachers who usually took the opportunity to give a modified revival-type sermon warning that the deceased had barely scraped by and managed to miss Hell, but a lot of us might not be so lucky. Gawd, how I hated those funerals! So, Dad selected a couple of hymns and one preacher who was a good friend of his. He promised to limit his remarks to no more than 15 minutes, and he kept that promise.

Sorry for that tangent. Back to the question at hand, Elton John had just come out with his Yellow Brick Road album. I can remember Tony and me both saying that "Funeral For a Friend" and "Candle in the Wind" would be perfect funeral music. But of course, we knew when we said it that we both would be living for many, many years before we had to think about such things...

This one goes out to Tony.