Yesterday, February 23, 2015 would have been my little brother’s 67th birthday. He never made it that far. In fact, he died in 1950 just past the age of two years and two months.
James Edwin Shepheard, named for his two grandfathers, was born on February 23rd, 1948 and passed away on May 15th, 1950. The clinical cause of death was from a pulmonary infarction due to Eisenminger’s Syndrome, a congenital heart defect. We were just told he had a hole in his heart, which is true.
We don’t know if surgery could have saved Jimmy. In any case the first open heart surgery to correct such defects was not accomplished until 1952. Surgeries involving a heart-lung machine were not done until much later.
I am reminded of Jimmy often, particularly around my own birthday and those of my sisters, and I often wonder how our lives might have been different if he had survived. I also think about him when I come across the deaths of other infants and children of my ancestors’ families. And, to my surprise, there have been many!
I only have snippets of memories of him, playing quietly with him in the back yard or on the living room floor. My two older sisters remember Jimmy as “a little angel who came to brighten our family . . . a happy, sweet tempered little boy . . . and so cute.” He never learned to walk – he was not strong enough – but he did talk and loved to laugh. His favorite game with our oldest sister was the nursery rhyme, “One two, buckle my shoe. . .” When they got to ten he would laugh and shout out, “Big Fot Hen!” in his growly little voice.
Some of the things that go through your mind as a surviving sibling are: If he had not been ill and we had grown up together, would we have shared similar interests? Would we have played sports or had business interests together? Might he have been my best man when I got married? There are so many scenarios that can be imagined with stories like these.
My youngest sister came along after Jimmy died. She likes to tell everyone that she was the only one of us that was planned. Of course we disagree about that. She has also commented that she might not be here if Jimmy had lived. I think she would have, and that we would have been a family of five children. But her initials would probably not have been J. E.
Psychologists suggest there can be major conflicting emotions when siblings die, especially at a very young age. Some individuals will be fearful or anxious; some may feel guilt. Others may feel abandoned especially if there are no other brothers and sisters to lean on. I think most children will experience a loss of innocence or, at least, an unwanted welcome into the real world. In our family, we learned that death is a part of life, that it is not to be feared nor dwelled upon but, basically, that things often happen that are beyond our control. While we can and will be sad that someone close was lost, we do have to move on.
Perhaps because we were ourselves so young, my sisters and I did not fully appreciate the seriousness of Jimmy’s illness or how his passing would affect any of us. It’s only as we get older that we really understand death and the loss of a loved one. The more years we have together the closer we become and therefore parting with the person, and our interactions together, is so much harder. We cannot know if Jimmy’s death had any lasting effect on us as siblings since our lives unfolded in what we have come to believe was the way they were supposed to. Perhaps there were some scars that accompanied the pleasant memories.
I cannot imagine anything as devastating as a parent losing a child. In looking back now, I believe that our parents were prepared for the eventuality and were able to get on with what they had to do – raising their remaining three children. Planning for their fifth was also part of the healing process. I suspect they experienced enormous grief but hid it from us in order to protect us and to allow us to get over the loss of our brother more easily.
In decades and centuries past, childhood deaths were not uncommon. Normal childhood diseases that we have seen almost eradicated often visited communities. Without the protection of vaccines which we now take for granted, these outbreaks resulted in the deaths of many children – and adults as well. Health conditions that children were born with, many less serious than my brother’s affliction, may have been untreatable, if they were even recognized.
In assembling the history about my own ancestors, I discovered that, in every generation, babies and young children were lost. I imagine that, in each case, the parents and siblings of those children must have felt the same way we did, with a great sense of loss. In later years, they may also have wondered how their own lives might have been different if their brother or sister had lived.
Our family histories often gloss over the premature deaths of people who never grew up, married and had their own families. They were no less important members of those families and their loss must have been felt deeply by parents, siblings and others. We should try to incorporate what we know or find out about them into any narrative as they were certainly part of the overall story.
I will try to do so below, however briefly, for siblings of my direct ancestors going back just four generations. The paucity of information about them shows I still have much research to do.
· Marion Elizabeth Shepheard (1919-1919) and Evelyn Ethel Shepheard (1926-1926) – I know very little about these two sisters of my father. They were infants when they died, perhaps even still-born.
· Lois Ivy Miller (1896-1905) – This little girl was born in Oklahoma over twenty years before my mother so she never knew her older sister.
· Andrew E. McDaniel (1868-1869) – My maternal grandmother’s brother was born and died in Lee County, Virginia.
· Florence M. Thompson (1892-1892) and Eveline Thompson (1902-1902) – These were two of my paternal grandmother’s sisters. Both were born and died in Mapleton, North Dakota.
· Charlotte Ann Shepheard (1867-1869) – This sister of one of my great-grandfathers died of rubella, complicated by pneumonia.
· Mary Ann Pearson (1852-1854) and Thomas Pearson (1854-1854) – These siblings of one of my great-grandmothers both died in Australia. Mary Ann was born in Warwickshire, England and moved with her parents to Australia in 1853. Her death record says “Scald Mortification 11 days” which must have been a tragic and heart-rending accident. Thomas was born in Australia and died of pneumonia at the age of two months.
· Harriet Keith (1851-1852), Martha Helen Keith (1853-1857) and infant Keith (1867-1867) –
· A great-grandmother lost three siblings, all of whom were born and died in Jennings, Indiana.
· Martha Anderson (1870-1870) – This sister of another of my great-grandmothers was born and died in North Dakota.
· Infant Anderson (1821-1821), Gilbert Anderson (1840-1841) and Jane Anderson (1844-1844) – The Campsie, Scotland birth record for the first child, sibling of one of my 2nd great-grandfathers, has a note “This child is dead” indicating it was still-born. No forename was recorded for this child and there is no indication of its gender. Other siblings, Gilbert and Jane were born in Lanark County, Ontario but did not survive infancy.
· Jane Crispin Carpenter (1835-1836) – This was a sister of one of my 2nd great-grandmothers. Her cause of death is unknown.
· Samuel Davis (1840-1842) – This brother of another 2nd great-grandmother was born and died in Warwickshire, England.
· Robert Emerson (1826-1826), Mary Emerson (1827-1829), George Emerson (1831-1831), William Emerson (1835-1835), Ann Emerson (1837-1837), George Emerson (1840-1840) and Phoebe Emerson (1843-1843) – Another of my 2nd great-grandmothers lost seven siblings at very young ages, the first three in Leiscestershire, England, before the family immigrated to Canada, another while crossing the Atlantic and two in Thorold, Ontario, where they were born.
There may have been more children lost to these and other direct-line families however I do not yet have complete information for all the family members to be able to confirm whether other names should be added to the list.
My maternal grand-father was a twin. His brother was still-born. I think he also always wondered what life might have been like had his brother lived, especially so since they were born on the same day. Edwin Miller was a sensitive and caring man who, on the day of his 83rd birthday wrote the following poem. It relates a sentiment that I think all of us feel who have lost a brother or sister at a very young age.
My Birthday – February 17th, 1870
In a Kansas shanty – in a form more like a toy,
Eighty three years ago today, was born a baby boy.
A Kansas blizzard raged without; within, a tiny wail
Came from the throat of that little form so frail.
You may believe it or may not; that feeble little cry
Came from that babe, that little babe – the babe that once was I,
At the same time there lay beside me on that bed
A normal child in every way except that child was dead.
And so the little weakling grew up to be a man,
They laid the strong beneath the sod as only parents can.
It seemed to me my greatest loss as I grew up alone
Was my twin baby brother whom I have never known.
Edwin died just seven months after writing this remembrance poem.
I never really knew my brother but I do still miss him. Happy Birthday Jimmy! Wish you were here.
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.