Grief books and essays often focus on the loss of a spouse, child, or parent; Susan E. Casey puts the spotlight on siblings. In Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief (Library Tales Publishing, 2020) Casey painstakingly tells the story of her brother Rocky’s death and other stories of siblings lost. The author shines a light on the complicated and individual aspects of the grieving process and uncovers glimmers of hope in lessons learned, the will to survive, and moments of joy celebrating the lives of the loved ones lost.
In the opening of Rock On, Casey brings the reader into intimate moments between her and her brother; how as children, they became the keeper of each other’s secrets and formed a special bond. Casey introduces Brian, nicknamed Rocky, as a charismatic figure battling addiction, giving into wanderlust while trying to find his place in the world. He eventually lands in Thailand, marries his second wife, and has a daughter. Suddenly, right when things seem to be smoothing out for him, he becomes critically ill. The details of Rocky’s decline are hazy. Still, the aftermath of fear, guilt, anger, sadness, and fractured relationships experienced by Casey in the wake of her brother’s death is clearly documented in the first section of this book. Casey details the loss of a sibling and the pain of losing someone unexpectedly:
Did I believe I’d see him when it was time to pass over? Yes, but I had never lost someone so close or so young. It was unimaginable to me that I was capable of feeling that depth of pain. Rocky was never going to say, “Only two more sleeps, Sis.” He was never going to wrap his arms around me, hold me in a tight embrace, and say “I love you, Sis.” I was never going to have the privilege of holding his secrets or laugh until my stomach hurt as he shared stories of his adventures. There were never going to be any more visits back to the States. It was over. I clenched my fist and screamed silently, Why God?
As Casey moves through the grieving process and seeks to find peace with her brother’s death, she sets out to interview others who have lost a sibling. More than a dozen of these stores make up the second half of the book, which is divided into sections that address a specific aspect of grieving and healing. As she did her brother’s story, Casey begins each of the following pieces at a point in which the sibling is alive. Even though this point of view shift can be awkward at times, this decision allows the reader to feel the individuality of each person’s story more intimately.
There is much trauma and loss in Rock On, and it can be overwhelming and heartbreaking to read the stories in succession in the second section of the book. Even if you have never lost a sibling, it calls to mind the quickness of our time on earth and all the ways our loved one can be taken from this life. There are deaths by suicide, accidents, heart attack, drowning, cancer, murder, war, and others. Through each story, Casey acutely captures the moment that a world can shift from ordinary to overturned in a matter of minutes.
One woman recounts the ordinary details of an evening, moments before learning of her sister’s death: She and Kay had movie tickets to Sex and the City. The much-needed night out was planned. Chicken cooked in the oven to feed her husband and two sons. After a shower, she’d get all dolled up, meet her sister to have a nice dinner, and then go to the movie…
The way Casey structured Rock On — the melding of Casey’s story and those she interviews — highlights that grief can be a shared process of learning and healing. After each story, Casey circles back to how she is dealing with Rocky’s death and continues to detail her healing journey. Many of the people she interviewed feel they have a duty to protect their parents by never mentioning the sibling who died — prioritizing the grief of a spouse or parents or child because they assume it must be worse than what they feel. Casey learns from each of these individuals as she shares her insights with them. In one interview, Casey relays her experience of finally opening up to her father about Rocky’s death, which encourages the woman to talk to her father. Other stories touch on how spiritual and religious beliefs can aid in healing.
There is a bit of respite at the end of each story. One can easily see how the simple act of telling someone your story, primarily to someone who has been through a similar experience, can facilitate healing. There are moments of good that come from these deaths through organ donation, charities formed, relationships healed, and merely a newfound way to live life on one’s own terms. Many come to terms with the fact that: “Our deceased siblings do not want us to suffer. They want us to live fully and joyfully.”
Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief is a tribute to Rocky and the other siblings in this book — and to the healing power storytelling. It is also a practical guide to navigating through grief, shining some light on the areas where one can find hope. Even as someone who has not lost a sibling, I found this book a valuable read. Every story is heart-rending.
Emily Webber’s writing has appeared in The Writer magazine, the Ploughshares Blog, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, and Slip Lip Magazine. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Find more at emilyannwebber.com and on Twitter @emilyannwebber.