Death of a Sibling

by Bill Brenner on January 7, 2011

Twenty-seven years ago today, my brother, Michael S. Brenner, died of an asthma attack at age 17. I can’t blame his death on the demons I’d battle in the years that followed. But it left deep scars all the same.

Mood music:

I think the end came for him at 8:20 p.m., though I could be mistaken.

That day a trend began where I would befriend people a few years older than me. A couple of them would become best friends and die prematurely themselves. It was also the day that sparked a lifelong fear of loss.

It’s been so long since Michael was with us that it’s sometimes hard to remember the exact features of his face. But here’s what I do remember:

We fought a lot. One New Year’s Eve about 31 years ago, when the family was out at a restaurant, he said something to piss me off and I picked up the fork beside me and chucked it at him. Various family members have insisted over the years that it was a steak knife, but I’m pretty sure it was a fork. Another time we were in the back of my father’s van and he said something to raise my hackles. I flipped him the middle finger. He grabbed the finger and snapped the bone.

We were also both sick much of the time. He had his asthma attacks, which frequently got so bad he would be hospitalized. I had my Chron’s Disease and was often hospitalized myself. It must have been terrible for our parents. I know it was, but had to become a parent myself before I could truly appreciate what they went through.

He lifted weights at a gym down the street from our house that was torn down years ago to make way for new developments. If not for the asthma, he would have been in perfect shape. He certainly had the muscles.

He was going to be a plumber. That’s what he went to school for, anyway. During one of his hospital stays, he got pissed at one of the nurses. He somehow got a hold of some of his plumbing tools and switched the pipes in the bathroom sink so hot water would come out when you selected cold.

He was always there for a family member in trouble. If I was being bullied, he often came to the rescue. And when he did, he was fierce.

That last day was perfect for the most part. I remember a sun-kissed winter day. I was immature for a 13-year-old and remember reveling in the toys I got on Christmas two weeks before. The tree in my mother’s house was still up, though the decorations had been removed.

My mother and I think my sister took off to run an errand. My father’s house was only a five-minute walk from my mother’s, and when they drove by, an ambulance was outside the house. I’m told Michael walked to the ambulance himself, and he was rushed to Lynn Hospital, which was torn down long ago to make way for a Super Stop & Shop. I sometimes wonder if he died where the deli counter now stands or if it was where the cereal is now kept.

While I was at my mother’s waiting to hear from someone, a movie was on in which a congressional candidate played by Dudley Moore befriended a woman played by Mary Tyler Moore and her terminally ill daughter, who was about 13. At the end of the movie, the young girl succumbs to her cancer on a train.

That freaked me out, and I went to my mother’s room to bury my head in a pillow. To this day, I refuse to watch that movie.

It was in that room that my mother, father and sister informed me my brother was dead.

I spent the remainder of my teenage years trying to be him. I befriended his friends. I enrolled at his gym, Fitness World. That lasted about a week.

I started listening to his records. Def Leppard was a favorite of his, hence the mood music above.

I even wore his leather jacket for a time, even though it was about three sizes too tight. I couldn’t zip the thing. I looked like an idiot wearing it, but I didn’t care. It was part of him, and I was hell-bent on taking over his persona.

But then there could only be one Michael Brenner. I eventually grew up and realized that. Then I spent a bunch of years trying to be just like Michael’s friend and our neighbor, Sean Marley. But there was only one Sean Marley. Unfortunately, people tend to remember him for how he died rather than how he lived.

I eventually had to learn how to become my own person. I did it, but it was pretty fucking messy. There’s only one Bill Brenner, and he can be a scary sight to behold.

The years have softened the pain, though I still have some regrets.

I regret that I often have trouble remembering what his face looked like. Fortunately, I found this photo while rummaging through my father’s warehouse last summer:

It’s a good image, but it’s in black and white. I still have trouble picturing him in color.

I miss him, and find it strange that he was just a kid himself when he died. He seemed so much older to me at the time. To a 13-year-old, he was older and wiser.

At the wake of a friend’s mom right after Thanksgiving, I found myself thinking of Michael and others who died too soon.

In a bizarre game of mental math, I started thinking about how long it took me to bounce back from each death. It’s a stupid game to play, because there’s no science or arithmetic that applies. The death of a grandparent is part of the natural order of things. The death of a sibling or close friend, not so much. Unless, perhaps, everyone is well into their senior years. Even then, you can’t put a measuring stick on grief.

But I tried doing it anyway.

With Michael and Sean, I’m not sure I ever really recovered. To this day, I’m cleaning up from the long cycles of depression and addiction that followed me through the years.

Along the way, good things happened to fill in the black holes. I married the love of my life. We had two beautiful children. My career hummed along nicely for the most part.

As you might expect, I failed to emerge with a general timeline of the grieving process. It turns out we’re not supposed to know about such things. That would be cheating.

I do know that it gets better.

Understanding that as I do, I have the following advice for those trying to get through the grieving process:

–First, go read the past year of entries in “Penny Writes… Penny Remembers.” If you can’t learn how to live in the face of horrible loss fromthe writings of Penny Morang Richards, I got nothing else for you.

–Take a moment to appreciate what’s STILL around you. Your spouse. Your kids. Your friends. If the death you just suffered should teach you anything, it’s that you never know how long the other loves of your life will be around. Don’t waste the time you have with them, and, for goodness sake:

–Don’t sit around looking at people you love and worrying yourself into an anxiety attack over the fact that God could take them from you at any moment. God holds all the cards, so it’s pointless to even think about it. Just be there for people, and let them be there for you.

–Take care of yourself. You can comfort yourself with all the drugs, alcohol, sex and food there is to have. But take it from me, giving in to addictions is nothing but slow suicide. You can’t move past grief and see the beauty of what’s left if you’re too busy trying to kill yourself. True, I learned a ton about the beauty of life from having been an addict, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever wish that experience on others. If there’s a better way to cope, do that instead.

–Embrace things that are bigger than you. Nothing has helped me get past grief more than doing service to others. It sounds like so much bullshit, but it’s not. When I’m helping out in the church food pantry or going to Overeater’s Anonymous meetings and guiding addicts who ask for my help, I’m always reminded that my own life could be much worse. Or, to put it another way, I’m reminded how my own life is so much better than I realize or deserve.

Like I said: This isn’t a science.

It’s just what I’ve learned from my own walk through the valley of darkness.

I’ve learned that life is a gift to be cherished and used wisely.

I’ve also learned that it hurts sometimes.

That’s OK.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole January 7, 2011 at 8:23 am


I don’t usually post on blogs, but couldn’t resist on this one; it was very moving. It made me think of my aunt, who I lost to breast cancer just a few years ago. I’ve tried to keep as much of her stuff as I could – material items that I was afraid if I let them go, it’d be letting her go. I even got a tattoo in her honor. I’ve lost five family members in the past eight years or so, and each grieving process was different. You’re right, there is no exact timeline, but it does seem to get easier as time passes.

Thanks for sharing.


Wendi Joy January 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm

You have an amazing talent with expressing yourself. I am so proud of you! Wendi

joseph kelley January 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Bill I like you were telling my life story 50 years ago Ilost my brother the pain is still here but not as sharp or as deep .Losing my son has cut me to bits God Bless you Bill

pennywrites January 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm

So much here, Bill. I agree, it has to hurt. That’s how you now it was good.

pennywrites January 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Damn, sorry. KNOW, not now

Lauren January 27, 2011 at 11:55 am

Bill, this was a wonderful, heartfelt piece. Thank you for sharing it. I am not sure if we ever “get over” the loss of someone but it does get easier. I think it is a process and as you mentioned there are steps we go through. Sometimes people use drugs or alcohol to hide from the pain and/or as you did try to “become” that person as a way of holding on. To truly heal, we must go through the pain, feel it and learn to live each day. We all have our own ways to cope with loss…the tips you mentioned above are very helpful. Your brother would be very proud of you ;).

Mary January 7, 2012 at 4:46 am

Thank you for sharing, and letting us all know, that loss and sad, gains and happiness, are a part of life.
There’s only one Bill Brenner, and he IS A GREAT sight to behold. I am So happy that YOU are in my life!
Love U bro!

Kate April 26, 2012 at 8:18 am

Bill, I came to your site initially about your posts on Fr. Conole, a priest who regularly helped me through my own OCD struggles. I’ve wandered around and this post in particular struck a chord with me…and you know what did it the most? That stupid movie you mentioned. I had a lot of people, very important people, die on me when I was a child. I began to think I was a curse, that if someone got too close to me they would die, and in return that became a big part of the fuel for my OCD, my own struggles with weight, and so much more. But I remember that movie clearly, even though I’ve never seen it all the way through, I remember that scene on the train more than anything and how upset it made me… I guess it just made me recognize—even more than I have on my own journey—how in so many ways I’m not alone.

God bless.

billbrenner1970 April 26, 2012 at 8:34 am

Kate: We are never alone. 🙂 God Bless you as well.

Linda June 26, 2012 at 9:36 pm

Thank you,

I lost my brother to HIV/AIDS before it had a name in the early 80’s. My brother Steven came home from Houston cause he was sick and didn’t know why. Loosing a sibling is pretty tough. He hung onto me and we were in and out of Mass General, always. He would be re-infected there and for months we fought to get him care. I could go on, but we understand more know. He passed within a year of coming home. Had he an extra 6 months , I always wondered if he would still be here. Medicine was sloppy then. And yet, after all these years and a anniversary around the corner, I believe Steven took his own life on a boat off the Coast of Cape Cod. He wanted dusk and dawn and no sleep.
I’ve enough evidence, and those who witnessed his passing are gone also. Two weeks ago I visited the Town Pier in P-Town where i and family and friends tossed his ashes. It was a beautiful cloudy, unpredictable sky. I thanked my God and threw a few seasonal roses into the harbour and sat for awhile talking a long over due conversation to myself and to Steven.

Linda June 26, 2012 at 10:24 pm

let me step back it was 20 years plus My family lent Steven to the sea. I just revisited for the first time since . My apologies around accurate time, fuzzy.

Donna Runeric January 5, 2013 at 6:56 am

Hi Bill. I just saw your post on facebook. I lost my brother December 19th, 21 years ago. We were both hovering around the beginnings of middle age, but he was too young to just come home from work and die, and I was too young and too screwed-up to be the one to find him. I didn’t know til after he died how much I loved him. I still cry and wish he’d come walking in the room. Sometimes I really believe he is here when I see something I know he’d think is hilarious. It sounds like you handled your grief pretty much the same way I handled mine. We survived. And you’re writing to help other people survive. Thanks.

Jessie September 30, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I am touched by your candor and process. I am also stunned by how much Shawn looks like your brother to me. Does he to you? Thank you for your blog, Bill.
Jessie McLaren

Kathy April 5, 2014 at 8:43 am

What a wonderful write-up on your brother, you do such a great job of getting your point across!

I don’t know why, but the music wouldn’t open up. I love your music you pick.

C March 16, 2016 at 7:53 pm

I love your honesty here. I think it’s important to remember the deceased for who they were rather than to deify them in ways that erase their humanity and realness. Michael was obviously well-loved and driven. I can’t imagine how hard that loss has been for you and your family, both when it happened and all these years later. I’m so sorry.

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