A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief

There are things we can’t control in life. Too many things. Like, when a parent dies in a freak accident. Or a parent leaves. Or being the oldest in a large family with no parent. It only took twenty-four hours for all three of those things to happen to me. I had zero control over any of it. The word “no” had lost all meaning.

I couldn’t sleep the night Dad died. It wasn’t possible. How do you sleep after something like that?

The house was quiet for once. The rain pounded on the roof as it continued to pour, creating the sad background music to my life. I listened to it, wavering between intense moments of body-shuddering grief and disbelief. Mom had cried herself out. Or left. Or both. Kaleb’s constant room-tone was gone. In fact, I didn’t remember hearing it when the cops came, but I knew he’d been awake. I’d heard him crying only moments before. While Kaleb can go from zero to one hundred in a matter of seconds, he wasn’t so good at reversing. It took patience to calm him down. But I didn’t remember seeing him. I didn’t remember seeing any of my siblings.

I waited for the storm to end. Then I waited some more, the clock on my end table continuing to blink the incorrect time. I didn’t know what time it was when I finally left my room, only that light had started to appear through the windows, birds singing as if nothing had happened. For a moment, I thought maybe the birds were right. Maybe a “no” had reversed the entire night. But my clock was still blinking. Which meant the power had gone out. Which meant the storm was real. Which meant that was the first day I had to live without my dad.

Nobody was up. To be honest, I didn’t want them to. If by some miraculous happenstance they had missed the commotion—the cops, the crying, the bad news—it was better for them to stay sleeping, dreaming a world with Dad still in it.

Someone knocked on the front door as I shuffled across the living room floor, barely holding myself together. I hadn’t yet noticed Mom’s absence. I thought maybe she was in her room, hiding from reality. Maybe she had entered Bliss and stayed there. If I had that ability, I’d do that too. Bliss was better than pain.

The knock was a friendly one. And by friendly, I mean, it had to belong to someone who came around the house a lot. They knew not to ring the doorbell that early. I stood in front of the door for a long time, taking deep breaths, trying to pretend nothing had happened, because I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. But I couldn’t make myself smile and the knocking persisted. So I opened it before I could hide my face.


It took me a moment to realize why she was there. Catherine was the kind of girl who demanded answers for mistreatment. If she couldn’t get ahold of me over the phone, she would appear on our doorstep or in front of my locker at school, begging to know what my problem was. So there she was, searching for answers, wanting desperately to know the reason for the sudden hang up the night before. We were mid-conversation after all. But her adorable anger melted seconds from seeing my face. The tone of her, “What happened?” changed mid-sentence from anger to empathy.

I turned my head away from her reach. I didn’t want to answer that question. So I stared at the driveway instead—at her car and mine. We had a double driveway that was usually packed with vehicles. My parents and I often had to play Tetris with our cars. But that morning, it was just Catherine’s car and mine. No Dad. No Mom. Damn. I kicked the porch railing, indignation engulfing me for a brief flicker of a second. Then, as reality hit, as it sunk deeper into my bones, into my mind, into my soul, my body tried to expel it, my mother’s dead garden covered in my puke.

Catherine grabbed at my arms, but I stumbled down the steps out of her reach, tears burning the outer membranes of my eyes. If only I could have gone blind for a few days, so I didn’t have to see all the sympathetic faces. So I didn’t have to witness anyone else’s grief. So I could pretend both my parents were still there.

“What is wrong?” Catherine demanded. Always the girl with the questions. Always the girl getting the answers. So I told her, my voice climbing octaves, stretching the boundaries of my vocal chords. My throat ached—tired and burning like the rest of my body. My dad was dead. He was gone. And the silence that followed my confession was never going to be enough to bring him back.

She didn’t stay long after that. Catherine had to start making her phone calls. She had to spread the news the only way she knew how—through the gossip mill of the cheerleading squad. It was supposed to make my life easier—less people for me to have to tell. But it didn’t feel easier. Especially when the phone calls started pouring in later that day. Eventually, I had to disconnect the line.

With Mom gone, it was just me awake in the house, burdened with the news and the troubling responsibility to share it. There were moments growing up when I’d mishear a sibling, believing them to have said, “Dad’s dead,” when they had said something else. That jarring heart thud that always came at those moments was nothing compared to the real grief. I was going to have to be that sibling who said, “Dad’s dead,” and meant it. They were going to have to believe me.

Kaleb was standing in the middle of the living room when Catherine left. I knew he knew. It didn’t make sense for him not to know. With the exception of Mom and Dad’s, his room was the closest to the front door. But Kaleb didn’t cry. He stood and stared at me like a ghost from a cheaply done horror movie, his teddy bear drooping in his hand. It wasn’t until I approached him when the screams began, his arms wrapping around my leg as he had done to Dad before he left—constricting in the way a snake does as it suffocates its prey. My leg started to tingle from the loss of feeling, but at least some of the pain was real. At least I had a physical reason for it. So I let him stay that way, bawling into the wrinkled pant leg of the jeans I still had on from the day before. The only movement I made was toward the couch so I could collapse in despair. Kaleb moved to my lap and we cried together.

That’s when the morning erupted into chaos. How our mother’s screams from the night before hadn’t woken the rest of my siblings, but Kaleb’s cries had, is a question I still ask myself all these years later. But for whatever reason, Chris and Reece had left their rooms to investigate. They stumbled over each other down the stairs, stopping at the bottom to stare at Kaleb and me. I’m sure it was probably strange for them to see us both crying. Before Dad’s death, there was nothing going on in my life that would result in those type of tears. I didn’t have much to cry about.

“What happened?” Reece asked, his voice shaking a little, anxious for the answer.

I shook my head. How could I tell him? He was just nine years old. If Kaleb hadn’t overheard, I probably wouldn’t have told him at all. How do you tell children that their father is gone? That he’s not coming back? That a thunderstorm on a dark night had caused their dad’s car to veer off the road and into a tree? That the impact took his life at only forty-two years when most people got seventy-two?

Chris got impatient with my lack of a response. “Tell us.”

I waved him closer, not sure I could spit the words out, but gearing myself up to try. He stepped forward. I kept waving. He took another step, almost to the couch. Snot and mucus had mixed with the tears on my face, stuffing my nose, making it difficult to annunciate, but I pushed past my heavy tongue to say the two words, “Dad’s dead.” Then a fresh wave of sobs hit me, exploding from my chest. I hugged Kaleb tighter as Chris processed the words.

He backstepped, his hands rubbing his face as if he could rub the truth away like a sponge rids dirt. “No, he’s not.”

I nodded shakily through the tears, unable to use my words, and somehow that was enough for him to accept the truth. He turned to face Reece, but our nine-year-old brother had already left, his bedroom door slamming in the distance. He’d heard. He hadn’t questioned it like Chris had. He hadn’t needed to hear it twice. Damn, I wish he hadn’t had to hear it once. Even today, now that he’s all grown up, I still wish he never had to hear those two words. Although his life is good now, life wasn’t fair to him for a long time after that day. But I’ll get to that.

“What is with all the racket?” Sabrina screeched, storming down the upstairs hallway and leaning over the railing. My sister never had much tact. She wasn’t delicate about matters. She always said what was on her mind. It didn’t matter that we were all mourning—two teenagers and a child bawling downstairs. This struck a nerve with Chris, who hadn’t completely lost his ability to speak yet.

“You don’t have to be selfish!” he shouted, grabbing a tissue box and tossing it in her direction. He missed by several feet. Chris wasn’t exactly athletic. He never could aim. “I can’t believe you have the audacity to scream at us when clearly something terrible has happened! Look around! Just stop and care for once in your pathetic life!” I scrambled to rid myself of Kaleb’s weight as Chris reached to grab the table lamp. Just before he could throw it, I launched myself over him, tackling my fourteen-year-old brother to the ground. Chris still fought me. His anger wasn’t letting me win. “Dad’s dead, Sabrina!” he shouted, ridding me of the responsibility of having to tell her too, but not ridding me of having to see her reaction.

That face—her entire expression falling, melting, morphing into something almost… unrecognizable. It was jarring. Nineteen years later, I still see it when I close my eyes. That moment when my sister heard the news at just sixteen years old—a time when I swear to God, she needed Dad the most—that was the worst reaction for me. It wasn’t Reece, who hid in his bedroom all day. It wasn’t Chris, who started to throw things. It wasn’t Kaleb being clingy. It was Sabrina melting.

“How?” She managed to choke out that one-worded question and I don’t know how she did it.

Something clicked behind me, followed by Kaleb’s daily screaming contest. The clicking sound grew louder—metal against drywall. I turned to see his hand reach into a bucket of toy cars. Two were already on the ground below the wall, splayed on their backs in different directions. He tossed another car at a spot on the wall where the paint was starting to chip. That’s when I let Chris go. He didn’t need me to restrain him anymore. We had bigger problems. Kaleb was having one of his freak-outs and Mom and Dad weren’t home to help. I tried to pick him up as he reached for another car, but he kicked and thrashed, fighting me the entire time. Kaleb could never seem to make up his mind. He’d go from clingy to not wanting to be held or touched. He tossed the tiny car he held in his hand, and I froze, realization dawning. This wasn’t a normal Kaleb freak-out.

I caught his next car after he threw it, my hand curling over the toy. “Wait a minute,” I said as the screaming stopped. Kaleb stared at my hand, shocked into silence. He had been answering Sabrina’s question all along. “Dad was in a car accident.”

. . .

The living room had cleared by the time Jarod woke. Chris and Sabrina had both retreated to their rooms hours before. Kaleb was cuddling against me, his thumb in his mouth, as we watched a string of Saturday cartoons. Well, I wasn’t really watching them. I’d zoned out about twenty minutes into the ordeal. My eyelids were heavy, begging for sleep, but I wanted to be awake when Jarod came downstairs. I needed to stay awake for his sake. He needed to hear the news from me.

I almost missed his entrance. Kaleb had to nudge me to gain my attention as Jarod crossed the kitchen floor.

Jarod was the most unpredictable of my siblings. I wasn’t sure if he’d react like Chris or Sabrina or Reece. My bets were leaning towards Chris. Jarod was always a fighter—a challenger. I thought surely, he’d get violent. But instead, he surprised me by being different. When he heard the news, he’d run.

I had to chase him through the city of Mission—through the neighborhood—until I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t stay awake anymore. I couldn’t fight anymore.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.