These chapters—fueled by personal narrative—shine and are worth the price of admission. Other chapters provide a solid surveylike introduction to the subject, chock-full of tips for parents struggling with the competing attentions of two or more kids. At the same time, however, more knowledgeable readers may wish Kluger had asked more probing questions of the experts he interviewed. A case in point is his discussion of the feelings of dethronement experienced by firstborns upon the birth of younger sibs, and the notion that every child is born into a different family configuration or “microenvironment,” each with its own dynamic. Professionals, who know this territory cold, might have appreciated more elaboration of the issues included, but new parents may find it to be a perspective-giving road map to the dynamics at play in their household.
Some chapters are less successful. Kluger’s chapter on the impact of birth order, for instance, breaks little new ground, instead rehashing relatively uncritically Frank Sulloway’s work and his bestselling book from several decades ago, Born to Rebel, which popularized the viewpoints that firstborns are more conscientious, conservative, and authoritarian, while children born later are more inclined to be rebellious risk-takers and innovators. Kluger includes the same material, despite the fact that quite a few researchers question Sulloway’s conclusions, or find them overly simplistic.
The fact that some of the sibling studies that Kruger refers to are either controversial (like Sulloway’s work) or limited in scope demonstrates how difficult it is to arrive at cut-and-dried, universal lessons about the sibling experience. The reason: there exists a seemingly infinite variety of family particularities that can influence the nature of any given sibling bond—starting with number of kids, how many boys versus how many girls, their difference in ages, the ages of the parents, the type of parenting styles, and the impact of ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result, many studies conclude with narrow findings, or with the warning that, depending on factors x, y, or z, sibling relationships can turn out one way, or perhaps another. For instance, it’s impossible for a parent not to have a favorite child, says Kluger, but whether being favored or not favored turns out to be a plus or a minus depends on the kid’s temperament, as well as on how the parents handle the situation.
This is another way of saying that studies can give us some general perspective on what to expect among siblings, but it’s variety and particularity that give each sibling story its richness and power, whether in the Bible, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or in Kluger’s own moving tale.
Kluger mentions only in passing his concerns about his and his siblings’ health as they age and approach the inevitability of mortality, but he shies away from further mention of what it might mean for him to mourn one of his siblings. The omission, I think, is due to the fact that he himself couldn’t face thinking about it. After all, our siblings are part of our biographies from early on, and in our relationship to them, we find and define ourselves. When we grieve for a sibling, therefore, we can’t help but grieve for a lost part of our own history.
Yet the death of a brother or sister is often not acknowledged as the powerful loss it is, asserts Claire Berman in her instructive, poignant book, When a Brother or Sister Dies. Berman, author of eight other books about family relationships, was drawn to this subject in the wake of her sister’s death, in New York City, of heart disease, in September 2001, just days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The national outpouring of grief put into stark relief the relative insignificance of any individual loss; at the same time, it brought home the sense that in the public consciousness, the death of a sibling is often seen as a lesser loss, compared to that of a spouse, a parent, or a child. She quotes a woman who told her, “When my brother died, none of my friends came to the funeral. . . . They didn’t think it was important enough. One of them even said to me, ‘Why are you carrying on like this? It’s not as if you’ve lost a parent.” Not only does such insensitivity invalidate the real nature of grief, it fails to recognize that the death of one sibling can transform the lives of the surviving brother or sister, when, for instance, a surviving sibling becomes the one to shoulder the financial or emotional responsibility for raising the dead sibling’s children, or taking care of ailing parents.
Berman provides insight into the nature of grief that can be applied to any significant loss: there’s no single cookie-cutter approach to mourning, she reminds us; we each find our own way through grief. Relationships that were discordant in life can continue to raise, in memory, issues that can be tough to resolve. The key is to validate and acknowledge, rather than demean or disenfranchise, the importance of the sibling bond, both in life and in death.
Throughout, Berman presents in-depth case histories that dramatize many possible responses to grief, and the multifaceted ways that we continue to remember. Along the way, she quotes numerous sources (including The Psychotherapy Networker’s Marian Sandmaier, author of Original Kin: The Search for Connection among Adult Sisters and Brothers), and provides a comprehensive list of resources. Truly, her book shows, our siblings leave their mark upon us, as much in death as in life.
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