By Diana Gilbert, Tommy’s Sister
Remembering My Brother Tommy
My brother Thomas, or ‘Tommy’ as we call him, passed away over 30 years ago, but the wound of his accident cut so deep, talking about him to this day for my family and I, feels like a fresh scar that will always need healing. While I’ll never be over the loss of my brother and his death will always have a lasting impact on my life, I’ve learned to accept what happened and move forward in my life without fear of loss.
It was a weekend in April 1987, and my siblings and I were playing with friends in our neighborhood cul-de-sac, when someone had the idea to start a game of hide-and-seek. The parent rule about playing out front, was we all had to keep an eye on each other. When the person who was ‘IT’ came running towards a group of us who were hiding together, we dispersed in all different directions and no one saw where anyone ran off to. After someone was eventually tagged, we realized Tommy was missing and none of us had any luck in locating him. We ran inside to alert my mom and she immediately set into panic-mother’s intuition always knows when something is wrong. Before I knew it, most of the street was helping look for him. My parents called the police and a short time later, a firefighter discovered him a few doors down in my neighbor’s pool. I don’t remember much from here, as people shielded us kids from seeing anything, however my parent’s reaction will forever be engrained in my memory. Tommy passed away the next day at Children’s Hospital, suffering from brain damage, as a result of the drowning.
Most of what I know about that day, is from my sibling’s and parent’s recounts, because I was so young at the time of his accident. To this day, there isn’t a single person in my family that can talk about the accident without getting extremely emotional. While his memory will always live on in our conversations, his accident has always been a topic of avoidance. All family members blame themselves for that day and feel responsible for his death. For this reason, the struggle of accepting and getting over my brother’s death, has been a challenge for my entire family.
Following the accident was a dark time for my family, everything seemed to just stop. School, sports, friends, church all came to a screeching halt- we didn’t attend or go much of anywhere. Being only five at the time, I couldn’t comprehend the severity of what had occurred or the repercussions it was having on everyone, I just remembered everything being different and very sad.
While my parents were still grieving, they recognized they had to use their experience to make change and pull the family out of the emptiness we felt with Tommy now being gone. My father discovered while a law was in place to require fences around pools, it was not being enforced. He recalls the day of the accident, one of the firefighters taking an axe to the pool and draining it, out of violation of regulation and anger, because he knew this accident was preventable. Apparently, the pool my brother drowned in, along with others in the area, had been cited previously for no fences. However, because the county never enforced or followed up on these citations, no action was taken to ensure fences were in place around neighborhood pools. My father worked to change this, to ensure no family would have to experience the same suffering.
Finding the little joys that life brings everyday was important for my parents, in order to keep going. The first happy experience I remember following my brother’s passing, was my dad bringing home a new golden retriever puppy to the family, who we named Toby. My dad was visiting Tommy’s gravesite and saw the house located on the cemetery grounds was selling puppies and felt a new family addition could help aid in the household gloom. It most certainly did! Toby brought some of the first smiles back to my family’s faces and gave me hope the sadness wasn’t going to last forever.
As time went on, the passing of my brother got easier, but I noticed the pain would resurface like a fresh wound with losses of extended family members, anniversaries of his birthday or death, and even the most unexpected of times. Over twenty years after his accident, I remember walking through a store and seeing a book my mother always read to my brother; Tommy would recite parts of the book, imitating the animals and cause my whole family to laugh. The memory of the book hit me like a tidal wave, causing me to burst into tears and become uncontrollably emotional in the middle of the store. I realized over the years, losses of grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles were always a magnified amount of suffering, even when there was little relationship that existed with them, because it resurfaced memories of my brother.
Since Tommy passed when I was only five, comprehending and processing the loss of my brother really rose to the surface as I became more of an adult. For so long, I worked to bury and block out his passing, rarely talking about him or his accident. My parents went on to have two children after his passing, however I would identify myself as being one of six children, for fear of saying one of seven would spark questions and bring to light my brother’s passing. I never wanted to talk about it, even with the closest of people in my life. It wasn’t until I talked to a therapist, where she recognized I never had given myself the opportunity to grieve the loss of my brother as an adult. As a result, painful memories kept resurfacing the wound. Giving myself the time to recognize what I was feeling, grieve, and accept his passing, was the only way I was able to move forward. This process really allowed me to bring him to life again through stories and memories. Now I can enjoy remembering Tommy and talking about him with others, which is the place of healing I always strived to be in.
Tommy’s passing has had an everlasting impact on my life, from personal relationships, to dealing with loss, and the soon to be parent I will become. Remembering that life does go on, while recognizing your grief and giving yourself the time to heal, you will experience happiness again and begin to enjoy life’s everyday beautiful moments. My parents’ healing came from taking their most tragic life experience and turning it into change, while always keeping his memory alive through stories. While we all heal differently, hearing others’ experiences can benefit us all, in overcoming grief and suffering.