For My Brother on the Fifth Anniversary of His Death

It was raining the day my little brother died. It would have been easier to understand had it been a driving rain, but no, it was the kind of mist that makes you grumble about not having an umbrella but not enough to make you go back in the house to get one. This kind of rain wasn’t the kind that causes accidents, not the kind that you expect to come alongside untimely death.

Cross country practice was nearly over, and our father was less than four blocks away, waiting for him to return to the school. He heard the sirens. I don’t know who called 911, but I do know that, after the car ran over him, a neighbor who was a nurse came running out of her house and performed CPR until the medics arrived. I never learned her name, but I always wanted to thank her.

My ex-boyfriend’s younger brother, A., was one of the first medics on the scene. He and my brother had been friends and schoolmates. He was with my little brother, Jesse, when he died, before they reached the hospital, asphyxiated on his own blood. The doctors said there was nothing anyone could have done, but A. blamed himself.

They said that Jesse had been running with the group when another friend pulled up in his car. Apparently it was a regular thing for them to give each other rides on the hood of the car, but this time, with the rain on the hood, Jesse couldn’t hold on. At least one wheel of the car ran over him, but it may have been two, a front and a rear. Either way, his ribs and internal organs were crushed, and his lungs punctured.

Jesse had been dead two hours before my mother called me. “Are you alone?” she asked. She sounded strange. I was on my way to dinner, I told her. “Can someone come?” she asked. Friends were meeting me at the dining hall. “Something bad happened,” she said, her voice cracking. I remember sitting down hard on the couch that wasn’t mine in my dorm apartment. “Jesse’s dead.”

She wouldn’t give the details, just that he was dead when they got to the hospital and that I needed to come home. It was 300 miles, and already after 6 when I got the call; leaving before the morning wasn’t an option.

I felt strangely calm at first, but it somehow turned to sobbing when I started making calls. I was working as a building supervisor at the time, so I called my boss, who lived in next building, and then my boyfriend at the time (coincidentally also named Jesse, now my husband). They arrived at nearly the same time, called my staff together for a meeting, and helped me make arrangements to leave.

That night, I was hysterical every time I tried to fall asleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about the two hours of limbo in which, in my reality, my brother was alive. While he was choking to death on his own blood in New Jersey, in my mind he was doing homework, getting ready for dinner, playing with the dog. A friend finally gave me sleeping pills to calm me down, and came back every four hours with another low dose because she was afraid not to give them to me but also afraid to leave me alone with the bottle.

The next morning, the news had spread. Walking through the building with my suitcase was surreal, like sleepwalking. There was whispering, and no one wanted to make eye contact. I quickly learned that most people fear that death is contagious; if they stay away from you, they won’t catch it.

Getting to the parking lot was a relief, until I saw the car. I was a junior, and it was Junior Ring Week at my college, when the other classes play pranks on third-year students The timing was bad. Someone had spread Vaseline on every outside surface of the car, and slashed my tires. I didn’t remember if I laughed or cried, but I do remember thinking that whoever had done it was going to feel like a real jerk when they found out what happened.

Five or six trips through the carwash and four new tires later, my smeary Blazer was on the road, with my boyfriend behind the wheel. It was late afternoon when we left, so it got dark quickly. Somewhere in Maryland, I made Jesse pull over; I needed to be in control of something. I needed to drive. We made it to New Jersey in just over 4 hours, though it should have taken more like 5 or 6.

Whether it was that night or the next I don’t remember, but the students at the high school held a candlelight vigil on the track, and my boyfriend, best friend, and I went along. The kids shared pictures and stories, and they sang “Time of Your Life.” When I introduced myself and told the kids how brave I thought they were for coming together and supporting each other, and how grateful I was for their love, I think I set off the people who weren’t already crying, which of course made me start crying. This became a theme, both the vigils and the crying, and the same kids turned out a year later for the first anniversary of the death to share more memories and sing together at Jesse’s grave.

I was home for about a week, shuffled along by extended family members and well-meaning neighbors who hugged me awkwardly and handed me plates of food I didn’t eat. When I went to the high school to clean out my brother’s locker, I found out that it had already been done and I just needed to pick up the box. I also found out that my other brother, Alan, had gotten in a fight. He had refused to stay home, preferring instead to be with his friends.

Emotions were running high, and I assumed he’d fought with the boy who had been driving the car when Jesse died, a kid who, in my opinion, had enough to deal with without getting beat up by the older brother of his dead friend. I was ready to yank him out of class to give him a stern older-sister talking-to when a teacher Jesse had been close to pulled me aside and told me what happened.

Some kid who had never liked my brother announced, “I’m glad he’s dead,” and laughed. Word traveled to Alan, who walked up to the kid and punched him in the face. You have to feel for the vice principal in that situation. How do you enforce a zero-tolerance violence policy when the aggressor punched a kid who totally deserved it?

When I went to say goodbye to another teacher, he whispered to me as he hugged me, “Second row, third seat back — he’s the kid Alan punched.” I didn’t say anything to the boy, though I wanted to. But I admit that I took some pleasure in the bruise on his face, and his obvious discomfort when I fixed him with what I hope was an extremely withering glare. It was clear that he knew exactly who I was.

In my mind, I gestured for him to follow me with one finger and led him into the hall, which was empty. I imagined slamming him against the lockers and putting a hand against his chest. “You’re lucky Alan got to you first,” I would say. And then I would spit on him, and push him hard against the lockers again before walking away, leaving him begging for forgiveness on his knees, tears streaming down his face.

But instead, I just left. I don’t remember seeing him at the funeral, though the church, which my father, a custom builder, had finished building the previous winter, was full to overflowing. About a dozen crying girls and a few crying boys lined up to tell stories about my brother, and my best friend harmonized with me on a song I played using Jesse’s guitar, which he would never play again.

The next six months were something of a blur. I went back to school, but barely left my room. My professors let me take incompletes and finish the semester on my own, but I still had to turn in major papers and participate in group presentations. For the first one, about a month after I got back from the funeral, I bumped into a classmate on the steps of the English building. “Where have you been?” he asked. “My brother died, so I’m kind of laying low right now.” “Oh my God, what happened?” “Um, well, he got hit by a car,” I said. It was easier than explaining the whole story. “Oh, my dog got hit by a car,” he said, and immediately his eyes got huge and he clapped a hand over his mouth. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.” It looked like he was going to throw himself down the steps, he was so horrified. I had to laugh. “Dude, it sucks when your dog gets run over.”

In one way, my life continued. I got engaged, I kept my scholarship, I got my own apartment with my then-fiancé, I adopted a cat. But the other half of me was still hysterical in bed, wishing it had been me instead of Jesse. Therapy helped, and meds helped more, but after five years, I can’t say I’m over it. I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet and neither is my family. My parents divorced about a year after Jesse’s death, and neither of them can stand to call my husband by his name.

People have tried to comfort me by saying things like, “I know your brother is watching over you right now,” or “He only died because God wanted another little angel,” but that only makes it worse. I would hate to think that my brother is in some spirit world alone with nothing to do but stare and the life he doesn’t have. I would also hate to think that the God who created this world is so selfish that he strikes down 16-year-olds just because he can. The Bible says that death is an enemy, and that God will do away with it. It also says that there will be a resurrection, and I know that I’ll see my brother again then. In the meantime, it’s a relief to know that he’s not scared or angry or anything else — just sleeping until the resurrection, conscious of nothing.

Although I know some in the community, and even in my family, felt differently, I never blamed the boy driving the car for what happened to my brother. I would have liked to see him lose his license for a year or two, both for his own good and to set an example for any other teenagers in the area stupid enough to hoodsurf, but I don’t think Jesse’s death is his fault. I’ve never been mad a him for it. But I have to admit, for the first couple of years, I was furious with my brother Jesse for being such a moron and putting all of us through his death, but I’m working on letting go of the anger. Kids are kids, and, frankly, kids are stupid sometimes. That’s why my brother is dead.

They say it gets better with time, but I think that’s a lie. It gets different, but it’s never really better. My grandfather died on my 18th birthday, and my great grandmother on my 19th. The US declared war on Iraq the day after my 20th birthday. And just over one week after my 21st birthday, my little brother died. He was 16 years, 2 months, and 2 days old. Every time my age goes up a year, I think about how his never will, and it makes me incredibly sad. He would have been a wonderful man.

Contents © Copyright 2008 Kristen King

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    • Marijke

      Oh Kristen – I’m really glad I was able to chat with you the other day; I know it doesn’t help ease the pain, and like you say it doesn’t really get better. It just changes. I know. Sadly, I know.

      What I found the most shocking was the first time I laughed or smiled at a memory of my brother – did the same thing happen to you? I was kind of glad I was able to remember him with a smile, but sad too.

      I’m not a huggy person – but I wish I could give you one and tell you I do know how it feels to lose a baby brother – whether they’re 16 or 35. The pain never goes away.

      I have to live with the thought that there is a reason for everything. We just don’t always get to figure out what it is sometimes.

      Take care.

    • Eric Eggertson

      Thanks for sharing your story, Kristen.

      So much of blogging is about pointing to news, commenting on trends, etc. Of course, we’re all just people, each with our own joys and sorrows. You reminded me tonight that all those blogs and contacts and Facebook ‘friends’, aren’t just ambitious networkers. They’re people too.

      My wife has a similar story, about loss and pain and the feeling of emptiness. Again, thanks for sharing.

    • Alicia Sparks, NAMI Affiliation Leader

      I’m so sorry for what you and your family have gone through, Kristen, and what you will undoubtedly continue to go through until we all one day have answers to these often enigmatic things called life and death. I hope this anniversary – and all the ones to follow – will be met with more ease and joy in remembering his life, and more strength and peace in coming to terms with his death. Again, I am so sorry.

    • Erin

      Your story was very touching. And as someone who has spent the past (almost) quarter century fighting with her sister, I realize how much of a blessing it is that we can still fight. I wish there were better moments of sisterhood and so now I’ll just commit to being a better sister myself. It’s really hard to lose someone you love, especially when they are young, especially when its completely unexpected.

      I liked what you said about the afterlife too. I really connected to what you wrote and it’s true…or at least I think it is. You’ll see your brother again. There is comfort in that.

    • Peggy

      Kristen, I can’t think of much that would be sadder to me than losing a younger sibling. Your story made me cry.

      Thanks for sharing. Take care.

    • Liz Fuller

      Hi Kristen

      What a lovely tribute to your sweet brother. I’m sorry that you have to go through this.

      And I thank you for the reality check – I’m calling both my brothers today.

      Take care.

    • Mary Emma Allen

      Kristen, I’m so sorry. As you say, it gets different. You still have the memories, the wish I’d done something different or could I have helped, going through your mind, especially on the anniversary of death. My little (still “little brother” even though he was 47) committed suicide and I had no idea he was feeling so badly. That was 15 years ago, but the hurt is still there and those questions, “Why didn’t I see? Could I have helped him?” My mom was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s when it happened, so it fell to me to help her through it, too. My prayers are with you, Kristen.

    • Kendra

      I am so glad you shared, it made me take check. And you are right, it doesn’t get easier, just becomes different. Take care! And I am not a huggy person either but I would give you one right now,and let you know I care.

    • Katharine

      Oh, sweetie, that’s so hard. Thank you for your honesty and openness. I’d hug you if there weren’t a few states in the way.

    • Angelique


      This is a marvelous tribute to your brother, one I’m sure you wish you never had to write but one I’m so glad I had the privilege to read.

      Life and death make no sense to me. I haven’t come to a point of serenity, and stories like yours just make me believe further that sometimes bad things happen and there’s no fault and no reason. But it’s terrible and horrific and life-changing.

      Keep writing about your memories. This was one of the most moving posts I’ve ever read.

      Oh, and I’m glad your other brother punched that kid in the face. If I knew the kid, I’d find him now and punch him again.

    • Jennifer

      I never know what to say about posts like this. I can’t comprehend. I know that when my grandma died (who 1/2 raised me) I hated when people said, “Oh she’s in a better place.” So that I get. It used to make me so mad. But a sibling is incomprehensible. My only blood relations are my sister and brother so we’re really close. I can’t imagine. Words escape me.

    • Kristen King

      Thank you all for your comments and your support. I appreciate it very much.


    • Kristen King

      @Marijke – The first morning I woke up without my brother’s death as the first thing on my mind, I actually forgot for a little while that he was dead. I rolled out of bed and it was sunny and warm, toward the end of April. I showered, got dressed, made some cereal, and it wasn’t until I took the first bite that I remembered. It hit me so hard that I almost spit the food out of my mouth, but I managed to swallow.

      We laughed a lot the week of the funeral, and shared ridiculous stories, and that was really, really comforting. I have a lot of happy memories with my brother, which is nice. But the day it wasn’t the first thing on my mind, I felt so, so guilty, even though I knew that was unreasonable. I can handle it now, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt that first time. So strange, like the rest of this journey. None of it feels real even now.

    • Kristen King

      @Eric – Great perspective. For me, the real point of this post was not necessarily to vent, though it was certainly cathartic. It was to humanize us. All of us. It’s okay to be sad. And life goes on. But you don’t have to be “over it” to function, and if you’re not functioning that great, well, that’s okay, too. We’re all people and we all have our stuff to deal with. Like you said, “each with our own joys and sorrows.” Great comment.

    • Kristen King

      @Alicia – Thank you so much. I think I can honestly say that I have come to terms with his death, but I’m still terribly, terribly sad about it, and I’m okay with that. I am very grateful for strong religious beliefs and a solid community that give me much peace and hope for the future. This isn’t the platform to get into that in detail, but I am happy to share privately, with you or anyone else reading.

    • Kristen King

      @Erin – It’s so funny, but I really do miss fighting with my brother. He was very creative, had a great sense of humor, and drove me nuts. We were very much alike in a lot of ways. We were right at the age where we were starting to have a lot in common other than just each other, so I think I feel the loss more acutely than had we been less close.

      For more on what I was talking about with the resurrection and the idea of “sleeping in death” rather than being in heaven or hell, you can look up these scriptures ( has a ton of different translations if you don’t have your own Bible):
      - John 5:28,29; 11:11-14
      - Ecc 9:5-6,10
      - Ps 146.4
      - Rev 21:4

      Like I said up the comment trail, I don’t think this is the platform to get into religious beliefs in detail, but you’re welcome to e-mail me privately to discuss further. I hope you will.

    • Kristen King

      @Peggy – I’m sorry for making you cry! Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment.

    • Kristen King

      @Liz – Good! It’s easy to get so caught up in life that we forget about the important stuff. I’m glad this helped you recognize a change you want to make. :) Tell your brothers you love them, will you?

    • Kristen King

      @Mary Emma – They never stop being our little brothers, do they? :) Another friend shared a similar story about her brother’s suicide, and I can’t imagine going through that. I’m grateful that Jesse’s death was quick and, all things considered, relatively painless. It could have been much worse. I feel for you — that must have been so difficult, especially with caring for your mom at the same time.

    • Elaine Warburton

      A wonderful tribute for your darling baby brother. Thanks to your poignant words his memory lives on. A big hug to you and your family. x

    • Kristen King

      @Kendra – I actually would have pegged you as a hugger, I have to be honest. :) Thanks for the virtual squeeze. I appreciate it.

    • Kristen King

      @Katharine – And thank YOU for reading. You are always so supportive of my writing, and particularly the very personal stuff. It is very encouraging, and I’m so grateful.

    • Kristen King

      @Angelique – I’m sorry my brother died, but I actually enjoy talking and writing about it. It gives his death meaning beyond what I believe because of my study of the Bible.

      If one kid hears Jesse’s story and thinks better of doing something dangerous, I’m happy. If one person takes stock of their life and rearranges their priorities to focus on what’s truly important, I’m happy. If one person feels less alone, I’m happy. That’s worth the difficulty of sharing.

      I still remember vividly how livid I was at what that kid said, but it occurred to me shortly thereafter how pathetic his life must have been if he thought THAT was funny. Sheesh. I hope he’s outgrown it, you know? Otherwise, he’s going to be miserable and lonely for a LONG time. Who would want to be friends with someone so callous? Truly, I feel bad for him.

    • Kristen King

      @Jennifer – What you said was just perfect. There’s no right answer, just your honest reaction. Thank you for being brave enough to share it. That means a lot.

    • Kristen King

      @Elaine – Thank you for reading and for commenting, and for the hug. :)

    • Angela

      Kristen, you’ve written so poignantly about the loss of your brother. You have my sympathies.

    • Laura Spencer

      You have my condolences. I admire your honesty. I believe you may have helped others through their grief today.

    • Peggy

      Kristen, that’s ok. I guess I cry easily at the thought of losing a brother. My brother is a cancer survivor, so I’m very happy to still have him.

    • Yvonne Russell

      Hi Kristen
      Thank you for sharing your moving personal story.

      It is a wonderful tribute to your brother and to the power of love, family and friends, including fellow bloggers whose lives you have touched with your words.

      Take care.

    • Thedy

      Thanks for sharing your story, hopefully some young people will read this and think twice about horse playing with a car. The story is very touching. Remeber when things get rough and we feeling lonely and depress because we have lost a love one in death our friend will be there to give us that shoulder. Jehovah and Jesus will never leave us.

    • Kristen King

      @Angela – Thanks very much. I’m glad it’s “poignant.” That is my favorite kind of writing. :)

    • Kristen King

      @Laura – Thanks, I sure hope so!

    • Kristen King

      @Peggy – Sounds like your family has been through a lot. That would make anyone cry easily! :) Glad to hear your brother is a survivor. That’s amazing. And I can tell how appreciative you are.

    • Kristen King

      @Yvonne – You are so welcome. Thank you for reading and for commenting.

    • Kristen King

      @Thedy – That is definitely the goal! Jesse’s death was totally avoidable, and if telling the story saves other young lives, and prevents families from going through something like this, it is well worth it. Thank you so much for the encouragement. It is so true.

    • Ami Neiberger-Miller

      This is beautiful. When my brother Chris was killed in Iraq, it helped me to talk to you and to hear your story. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to talk with another sister who had lost a younger brother. You helped me realize I could carry this pain and still function – still walk around – even with a hole inside my heart. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your journey in such an honest way. It never gets better, it just gets different.

    • Mary Witzl

      You are right that time does not take away all of the pain. Sadly, the ache is always there in the background, even though it does grow duller.

      When my mother died, I noticed that most people either ignored the whole issue or tried to find some way to mitigate it — “God wanted her, she was so good” — “She had a good, long life” (she was 67). I was told not to grieve in some instances, but if you can’t grieve when someone you love dies, when can you grieve? I have learned now that when someone I know has lost a loved one, the only thing to say is a fervent “I am so sorry.”

      I like the story about the boy whose dog got run over, though, and how he tried to commiserate with you by comparing this to the death of your brother — at least he tried to say something, and he caught himself afterwards!

    • Christine Eldin

      I am very sorry for your loss.
      I agree with Angelique (who has this on her blog) that your tribute is beautiful.
      My youngest sister died 4 years ago, and what you said about it not getting better, but different, resonates with me.
      Hugs to you.

    • Cory

      Thank you for writing so candidly and thoughtfully about Jesse’s death and how it’s affected you in the five years since his accident.

      I, too, have thought back to the “limbo” you refer to, like I somehow should have known instantly that someone close to me was no longer alive. How can a person be walking, talking, animated one minute and no longer there the next? It doesn’t make sense.

      I think if we shared more, talked about our experiences more, didn’t have to put on a brave face, maybe we’d be better able to support other survivors instead of reciting meaningless platitudes. Death is something that we seem so ill prepared to cope with, yet it’s the one inevitability in life.

      Thank you for telling your story.

    • bleeding espresso

      This is so beautiful Kristen, and I hope it has helped you to write all of this out and share it with us–I am sure it is helping lots of others.

    • Jeanette

      I am crying for you because I understand. My daughter has been gone almost three years and I miss her more than ever. My sons managed to go back to school, but it was hard. Maybe its time for me to write about Sara and finish her story. You give me courage to do that. ( Hugs to you.

    • Lori

      Thank you for introducing us to Jess and for letting us share your pain. What a terrific sister you are for remembering him in this way. Much love and hugs, sugar.

    • kristen fischer

      I think from what you say that he was already a wonderful man. xoxoxo

    • Hope Wilbanks

      You are such a brave and courageous woman for sharing your story. I’m so sorry for your loss, but so thankful that you are able to open up and share such an emotional experience with your readership. (((HUGS)))

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    • chirky

      Wow, what an incredible tribute to your brother. I am confident he would have grown into a wonderful man, and that he had the best of sisters. Thank you for sharing with all of us.