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The lesson that has stayed with me from my young brother’s death

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Cerith Gardiner - published on 10/06/21

My childhood experience helped shape my relationship with death throughout my life.

Tomorrow would have been the 43rd birthday of my little brother, Paul. Sadly, he didn’t make it to his first birthday — he died when he was just 11 months old. I was 6 at the time and the events surrounding his death and funeral have marked my whole life — in a strangely positive way.

Even before Paul’s birth, it was clear he was going to be a special baby. The night before my mother went to the hospital to deliver him, our neighbor (whom my four older siblings dubbed “Holy Maria” because of her strong faith) came to our house and dropped off a bottle of holy water. She hadn’t done that for any of my mum’s previous five births.

Paul’s birth would be my mother’s most painful delivery of all her nine children. He was born with Apert syndrome, a genetic disorder resulting in deformities in the skull and limbs. My parents had no idea that their son had this syndrome; back then scans weren’t available.

In Paul’s case, his tiny hands were fused shut, his head was considerably malformed, and his lungs were weak. But doctors believed he would go on to lead a “normal” life.

Today, the life expectancy of a baby with Apert’s is the same as any other child, and thanks to skilled surgeons many of the deformities can be corrected. In Paul’s short life, he had a number of surgeries and was thriving. In fact, my memories of him were of going to visit him in the hospital, sharing his ice cream, and trying to make him laugh.

When Paul was about 10 months old he was able to come with us to Ireland for summer holidays. We were all excited as he was doing really well and he was even going to have his hands operated on when we arrived back in England.

But when we were in Ireland Paul caught pneumonia. It was at the end of our holiday and we were due to return to England for school. The hospital staff said that Paul was doing fine, so my parents decided they would leave him there with extended family to care for him while they drove the rest of their brood home in time for school. My dad was planning to fly back to Dublin to bring Paul home a week later.

The journey home

We were on the ferry heading back to England when my parents received a message over the loudspeaker to see the captain. They left us with my eldest sister in charge. When they came back they beckoned us into a cabin and shared the news that Paul had taken a turn for the worse and died.

The next thing I remember is seeing some religious sisters from our parish comforting my parents — they happened to be traveling on the same boat. My mother reassured us that Paul would no longer suffer and he’d been called to his heavenly home.

While there were tears, there was a certain feeling of peace. The little chap who’d given us 11 precious months of love was no longer with us. He had bravely made it though his surgeries, offering us sunshine with his happy disposition.

My parents told us we would be staying on the boat to return to Ireland. At that age I found it all pretty impressive. I remember thinking none of my friends had ever been on a boat and then not gotten off!

We arrived back in Ireland and I don’t recall anything before the funeral itself. We were in a procession of cars, my parents in one car with Paul’s coffin lying between them, and we were following behind. I remember this detail because my siblings had asked me to run and ask my parents for candy when we stopped. I guess kids don’t stop being kids!

We arrived at the church and Paul’s coffin lay open. We all went in turns to pay our respects. The 6-year-old me was on tiptoes peering into his coffin all lined in white. I truly thought he was an angel. In his little hands were a stuffed white lamb and a single rose. These two details I will never forget as I remember feeling such relief that he had something to comfort him.

After the service, he was laid to rest in the same grave as my grandmother who had died just a month before him. (At the time I couldn’t comprehend how hard it must have been for my father to lose a father and a son in such a short time.)

A lasting peace

I remember being sad, perhaps because everybody else was sad and I thought that’s what I was meant to feel. More than that, though, I found myself curious as to what was happening with Paul in his death and whether he’d be happy in his permanent place of rest. I remember feeling very peaceful; I felt Paul was being looked after by my deceased grandmother.

I have very few vivid memories of my childhood, but Paul’s death is inked in my mind. While I was sad that my little brother and playmate had gone, I felt no fear of death — none whatsoever. And this feeling has stayed with me throughout my life.

I sometimes wonder why. Why did this event mark me so strongly and in such a positive way? I think it boils down to the fact that children are naturally curious. Nothing about Paul’s passing was hidden from me. I saw him lying in absolute peace. I felt assured that he was “no longer in pain,” as my parents told us and so I literally had nothing to worry about.

Everybody copes with death differently and perhaps the timing of his death also played a large role in how I coped. I was at an age where I could have some understanding of death, without the anxieties that an older child might have.

But if there’s something I’d like to say to my little brother on his birthday, it would be: Thank you for the joy you gave us while you were with us, and thank you for teaching me that death should not be feared.

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