What you learn when you’re 10, and your brother is killed

Beth Sleeper Roybal was 10 when her older brother, John Sleeper, 12, was shot to death on Nov. 12, 1973, in Niantic, Conn. As a child, she said she felt guilty, as he was the only boy. She wondered why it hadn’t been her. John’s birthday came about a week after he died, and Beth had already purchased presents for him: a wooden airplane kit and a frog bean bag. She remembers being embarrassed that the presents weren’t good enough. Her brother was dead, and she was left holding toys.

Last week, Beth’s father, Dave Sleeper, of Hermon, described the grief of losing his son and how, every time he hears another child has died, he loses his son again. Beth, the youngest in the family, is now 49, has been married for 26 years and has six children of her own. Her perspective, having experienced the horror and loss as a child, is one of continued awe for her parents and understanding of what other children go through when their loved ones die.

The child’s view is what she thought of first when she learned of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. “My first thinking wasn’t about the parents. It was the other kids, what they saw, what they lived through,” she said. Her prayer for the families, she said, is that they are able to follow a path of healing similar to one her parents set for her and her older sister, Kim: creating a semblance of normality but not being afraid to cry together, accept and reach out for help, talk about what happened, show affection and never quit.

She described her parents as extraordinary. “I don’t mean that because any one thing they did was extraordinary,” she said. “It was the ordinary, everyday, moment-by-moment survival that made the difference. It was crying together as a family. It was all four of us sleeping in Mom’s and Dad’s bed for days. It was Mom and Dad getting out of bed every day, even when they didn’t want to. It was them letting Kim and me ask questions and crying with us afterwards. It was them praying for us to survive. It was them determining that we would survive as a family. It was them never giving up.”

The day of John’s death is still scattered in Beth’s memory, as it happened nearly 40 years ago, and she was young. But she has pieced together her own recollections with what her family says happened. She was home when a family member of the 15-year-old shooter burst in and said John had been shot. She ran with Kim to the house, located just a block away, where John had been playing.

She didn’t find out until later that her mother, Anne Sleeper, had taken off running before Beth ever made it out the door. Beth never saw the ambulance and didn’t know until later that her mother rode in it, with John, to the hospital. She didn’t know until later that John was dead. She just remembers being in the neighbor’s house and trying to comfort the shooter, who was unconsolable. She remembers the shooter’s mother thinking the situation wasn’t real, that it was a prank of some kind.

Family friends picked up Beth and Kim and eventually brought them home, where their parents were waiting. Beth remembers being in the front door of the house, looking up. She remembers her parents crying and then sitting on her father’s lap, with all four of them on the couch. She thought she knew what had happened, but she wasn’t entirely sure. If they had told her, she hadn’t heard it, she said. So she asked her father, “Did John die?”

“I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to have to say, ‘Yes,’” she said.

A year later, when Beth was 11, the family moved to Hermon. At the time she didn’t want to leave her friends and come live in a farmhouse in Maine, but looking back she said it helped the family heal. Moving “was helpful for Mom and Dad because I think it was so painful in the house with John everywhere you turned,” she said.

Now living in Virginia Beach, Va., she said she’s learned over time that pain lessens but never goes away. “I would have liked to have seen how he would have been,” she said. “I would have liked to have had a big brother … I’ll miss him my entire life. That will never change.”

She’s also learned from her parents’ example how to persevere. “When my husband was at war in the Marine Corps, and I had our second child without him, and moved without him, I knew it would be all right,” she said. Twenty years later, her husband was laid off in 2009 during the recession and a year later went to Afghanistan to work in telecommunications as a civilian contractor. Instead of staying six months, as they planned, he ended up staying two years and four months.

“We were all right because we had to be, because you get through stuff, and you get a little tighter as a family,” she said.

And losing someone you love changes how you perceive the loss of others, she said. It builds empathy. She’s seen it with her parents, how they reach out to those who are sick or experience deaths of loved ones. They do it quietly. They don’t hold back, knowing how short-lived the opportunity to care for someone may be.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.