Our Birth Order Dynamics Changed When My Sibling Died

I was the middle child and would always be — right?

Two siblings looking at a older photo of their baby brother RDNE Stock project | Canva

I was nineteen when my brother, Warren, died in a single-car accident. He was eighteen at the time, our ‘baby of the family’ and we all loved him very much. His memorial service was loaded up with teenagers and twenty-something-year-old girls he’d been with. It was like a fashion parade, with a lot of flowers and godawful organ music playing Beatles’ songs.

I was the middle kid of the family before. Now, would I be the baby of the family? I wondered about that at first. Decades have passed, and in looking back at how things turned out, I became like a classic firstborn.


People ascribe certain traits to the eldest, the middle children, and the youngest — the baby of the family.

The eldest is thought to be the boss, the go-getter, the trailblazer, and the ‘A’ personality — dynamic and strong. The moneymaker. The head of the company. Middle children are offspring who come after the oldest and before the baby. Not just the middle in a clan of three. They are thought to be ignored and seek attention. Supposedly, they become resourceful in a quest to get what they need. And the baby? The baby gets all the love from the parents. All the ‘no’s’ are used on first and middle children. It’s one big happy ‘yes’ to the baby of the family.




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My birth family included three children, a mom, and a dad.

Our parents were busily destroying their marriage with affairs and bickering. Apparently, the hardest number of children to deal with is three. After three children, things get easier. I’m sure my mother would have scoffed at this. Mom was practically racing to her doctor for a hysterectomy when we were tweens.


The children in my family were born a year apart (bing bang boom!) although my sister, the oldest, was a year and a half older than me. Our birthdays looked like this:

  • Oldest daughter, born April 1958 — (Aries)
  • Second daughter, born September 1959 (Virgo)
  • Third son, born October 1960 (Libra)

For the sake of understanding our family dynamics, here’s some information.

At the time my brother died, my sister, the oldest daughter of our clan, was living in an apartment perhaps fifteen miles away from the family home. Aside from being the oldest child, she was an artist. She had an artist’s sensibilities — watchful, a bit whimsical, and definitely a bit of a loner and introvert. Not the Type A: driven, competitive, impatient.

As the middle child, I was a fairly assertive teenager. I had plenty of boyfriends and didn’t hesitate to do controversial activities. It was the ’70s, and I was toting around a fringed leather purse full of cigarettes and birth-control pills. That was me.


When I was nineteen, I moved home, because my apartment roommate — Mom — went back to Dad. This was a short-lived experiment, as they weren’t happy together. My brother and I knew it wouldn’t last, and we were tired of their drama. As teenagers, we knew the truth. It wasn’t feasible to fix the marriage. We’d listened to the fights for years; Mom and Dad were toast! Ridiculous, we decided.

Mom was a gorgeous, petite blond with a fiery temper and a good job, and her affair with her boss — and then another guy or two — had Dad furious all the time. In retaliation, he had a girlfriend whom he later married. She had four sons of her own. It was like an unattractive Brady Bunch situation.

Anyway, my little brother had enough of my parents’ bickering, along with being bossed around by Dad and told to mow the lawn. He was fed up. Warren moved twenty miles away in a tiny house with his best friend, whose parents were alcoholics. I wish I had done more to keep an eye on him. At eighteen, he was wild. Lots of partying, and he was popular with girls. And then, he died. He was four miles from my family home when it happened. It was 2:00 in the morning. He was driving his red Chevelle Super Sport and hit a culvert. The car crashed hard, end over end.

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At the farmhouse a few miles away, I sat up in bed, startled.

I think I screamed myself awake. What was happening? Why was my heart pounding out of my chest? Then I heard the crunch of gravel coming in the driveway. It was the policeman, coming to tell us. The knock on the door. My mother. I will never forget.

It was the worst experience of my life to lose my brother.

I’ve lost babies, gone through a miserable divorce with cheating the likes of which would shock most normal folks, and dealt with a lot of death, at least ten close people. I’ve recently had cancer. All these unpleasant (horrible! depressing!) things are part of my personal rockpile of misery — but my brother’s death is the very summit of the bad-crap-I’ve-endured pile. I will never feel differently.

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When my brother died, I did not become the baby of the family.

That was his place in the birth order. As the baby, he enjoyed certain privileges. For sure, some of these were gender-related too.

  • He didn’t have a curfew (too bad there, but eighteen? What can you do?)
  • My parents and grandparents bought him cars and basically whatever he wanted. He even got a CB radio, 10–4 good buddy!
  • He was the favorite. I can’t prove this, but when you know, you know.

He possessed a great set of traits. First, he had a lighthearted, laissez-faire attitude about things. Nothing rocked his boat for too long. As an older teen, he worked, made money, and paid his bills without complaint. Likewise, when he got disgusted with my parents, he absented himself and that was that. He got what he wanted, generally. He knew how to ask to borrow the car. He knew when he could ask for money. He had a good eye for trends and habits with my parents and knew when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.

I was the middle child but I stepped up my game.

Let me say I don’t necessarily agree with all of the traits of a middle child. According to one source, traits include these:

  • Adaptable
  • Social butterfly
  • Creative
  • Rebellious
  • Competitive
  • Great negotiator

I’m extremely adaptable.

When my brother died, I became the head of our family in some respects. I didn’t want to fill that role, but my mother completely lost her ability to function. Dad wanted nothing to do with her. I moved into an apartment in time to see more of Mom at my door. She began drinking — a lot. I was carrying her to bed and calling in sick for her. My uncle used to dump her on my apartment doorstep and drive away.

It was not easy. I was there to help her. I know this was what many people would consider co-dependent, but remember: I was a teenager, and my brother had just died. My mom suffered more than any of us. I watched it, and felt deep empathy and sorrow. I didn’t yet know about enabling and interventions; I learned about that later. Suddenly, I had to walk away from helping her. Things got even more dire.

Dad had a horrific car accident in early 1982.


He nearly died and was flown via a life-flight helicopter to a trauma hospital. His lungs were torn, his heart was bruised, and his leg was smashed. He was on life support, so swollen and battered I scarcely recognized him. My aunt called me from Emmanuel Hospital to “Get here fast.”

From that day on, I was at the hospital every day for months and months. It was just me, the middle daughter, twenty-two years old and with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I had to take on dealing with the doctors and surgeons. No one else was available. Dad’s girlfriend was in a coma herself, and wouldn’t emerge for weeks. My brother was gone. My mother was barely capable of caring for herself. My sister, the eldest daughter? Was she taking charge, becoming the leader? Nope. She moved far, far away. She flew home for about a week and then moved back to her new home state. Her boyfriend’s dad said, “Better propose fast, or you’ll lose her to her family. They need her.” So her boyfriend proposed fast. My ‘middle child’ ways included working full-time during the day, then driving during rush hour to get to Dad’s hospital in Portland. Fortunately, most of the bad traffic was headed south as I drove north.

I wasn’t a social butterfly, nor was I even very happy at that point.  I was starting to think that adulthood was horrible, in fact. High school was even beginning to seem better!

But I was adaptable and resilient.


I found myself challenging common beliefs — one being that doctors know what they’re doing. My middle-child rebelliousness began showing up. I found myself asking doctors hard questions on Dad’s behalf. Staring and not breaking gaze. I developed ‘alpha dog’ tendencies in my twenties. I had to. My parents needed me.

How about firstborns?

I can’t speak to the drive of every firstborn. In my situation, the firstborn escaped a bad situation. It’s occurred to me that perhaps that’s why she looks a decade younger than me. My older sister, the firstborn, moved far away when my parents were suffering terribly and grieving my brother. It wasn’t a surprise to me that she didn’t move home to help.


I felt a great deal of anger and resentment back in the day, though. Yet, what young adult should have to take care of grieving parents? I had complicated grief myself. Should my eldest sibling have stepped up and shown ‘oldest child’ traits? Should she have been conscientious? reliable? driven to take charge? helpful? My twenty-year-old self says, “Yes! I’m dying trying to keep my parents from nose-diving into the grave!” On the other hand, my sixty-four-year-old self says, “Who can blame her?” That oldest child — never a care provider nor much of a selfless soul — was not cut out to be in misery’s kitchen licking all those pots.

I’ll say this: when my brother died, I stepped up to the plate in a major way. Tending to my parents, which I’d do again, was a ton of work.

I developed first-born attributes.

Being the offspring who stayed around when things got miserable earned me some serious points with all of my relatives. I was the rock. I was the one who could be counted on. I valued family more because I worked to preserve them.


Last, because my brother was gone, I noticed my parents — in time — were able to become more loving and find their ways. Neither of them fully healed. My father’s grievous injuries in his car accident made things hard on him for the rest of his life. Mom did better, however, and enjoyed periods of relatively decent health. Every anniversary of my brother’s birth or death brought her down though. It was hard to witness.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever entirely agree with birth order traits, but I’ll say this: children’s personalities are definitely shaped and transformed by events in the family unit. I love every single member of my clan — most of them long gone. I’m the middle daughter, and am glad for it. Perhaps I’ve proven birth-order theory wrong. Or maybe my loved ones drove me to become a leader when I needed to fight for those I loved. I have no regrets.

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Debra G. Harman is a memoirist and author. A publisher on Medium, she enjoys working with a team of writers. She's a retired English teacher and a world traveler.