It’s been one year since my youngest brother passed away from cancer, although I try not to dwell on it, this may have been one of the hardest things I have experienced in my life. Maybe my life has been soft but part of me has felt lost and unable to express what had just happened to my family. I refused to allow the process of healing begin by closing myself off from everyone around me.
Dealing with death is a process — one that may very well continue until my later years in life, and one that is constantly evolving. I took a moment to reflect on the last year- here are a few things that I’ve learned about dealing with death during that time.
1. Realize that everyone deals with death differently.
I have 3 other brothers on this side of my family. As the oldest (if only by a few months from my Step- Brother) I have always felt that part of my JOB was to blaze a trail and lead the way. Both with life (I was the first to get married and have children) and in dealing with death. The way my brothers all processed the death was completely different than mine. Yet they all knew exactly what I had been through, from the time that my brother got diagnosed up until his death. I often tried to compare my situation with those of others — sometimes just to measure my level of grief to gauge if I was overreacting, or set a potential expiration date of when the pain I was feeling would go away. Was it okay the way I was feeling?
I’ve realized that everyone processes death in a different way. Knowing this means that you don’t have to second guess your thoughts, feelings and actions. This is your personal journey, and you’re allowed to feel, think, say or do whatever it is that you need to heal.
2. Open up and talk about it, but only when you’re ready.
Although I appreciated the messages, emails and voicemails from friends saying “sorry for your loss” and telling me to let them know if I needed anything, every message I received was also a stinging reminder that it had happened. I was in denial and didn’t want to face the fact that it had happened — I hated checking my phone only to see constant reminders of my brother’s death. I thus closed myself off from everyone I knew. I didn’t talk about it. I internalized all of that pain to wake up, put a plastic smile on my face and go on about my life, going through the motions and never truly processing the event.
Opening up about my feelings allowed me to start the healing process. It took about year, I was sitting on the couch with my daughter and she was asking about Jeff. It really was the first time I came to grips with the facts.
3. Let yourself be vulnerable.
“Tony, stop crying. Be strong for your family.” This is what I said to my self from the time of his diagnosis to his demise. I pretended like everything was okay because I didn’t want to appear weak and vulnerable to my mom, dad, brothers or my own kids. I couldn’t make them worry about me. I couldn’t cause them more pain or anxiety by letting them know I was in the midst of an extended marathon of an emotional breakdown.
And you know what happened?
I kept everything inside and never showed them how f-cked up I was, consequently building an emotional dungeon around me. I didn’t even give them a chance to be there for me, and that only started a chain reaction. Supporting your loved ones is about give and take. When you let yourself be vulnerable, you invite others to be vulnerable around you. One day when you’re feeling like complete sh-t, they’ll be there for you. Then when they have a day when they feel like complete sh-t, they’ll come to you and you’ll be there for them. Close yourself off and you’ll always feel alone, and that’s not how it should be.
4. Allow your friends to be there for you.
I have always felt uncomfortable asking for things from my friends. If I needed something, I was hesitant to ask anyone. Even though all I wanted was for someone to listen while I vented about my frustrations and pain, I never picked up the phone and called my friends. I didn’t answer when they called. I would go for a drive, get lost in my own head. This happened every single day for months.
One day, my good friend Rebecca sent me a text message right in the middle of one of my drives. I responded back to her for the first time in weeks and aired out everything I had felt at the exact moment. It was the first time I had allowed my friend to be there for me, even if it were only sending text messages back and forth.
Since then, I’ve slowly reconnected with my friends, made some new ones (Rob and Becky!) and whenever I’m having an issue I allow my friends to be there for me by opening up to them. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you’ve got people in your life that will have your back — no matter what it is that you’re going through, but you’ll never know that unless you let them in.
5. Know that you’re allowed to be f-cked up.
When my brother passed and my family struggled, I was more than a little lost. I tried to be there for everyone. To be the strong one. No one could answer my questions, I thought I would never get closure. . A year and I am still asking myself the same questions over and over again: Why did I still feel so much pain? When am I going to get over this? Why can’t I just get back to “normal?”
I think I just realized that this is my new normal.
You’re allowed to be completely f-cked up. This is not only a hard thing to go through, it is also the hardest thing that you will ever go through. And that should bring you some form of peace, knowing that anything else that’s thrown your way will be nothing compared to what you went through with the loss of your loved one.
Dealing with the death of my brother changed me forever, and the second I accepted that was the second I found the strength to live the life I had always dreamed of. Don’t ever be ashamed of your past, don’t ever forget that it’s what makes you beautiful, AND DON’T EVER GIVE UP.
6. Book a ticket to a place you’ve never been.
When you’re grieving, it feels like nothing else is happening in the world, and all you seem to do is focus on the negativity that’s happening around you.
You forget that the world is filled with beautiful, positive, inspiring things because you’re in your own immediate environment, which at the moment kinda sucks.
Traveling helped heal me –. It opened up my eyes, expanded my perspective and inspired me to continue to fight to find happiness. I had an opportunity to travel up to the Yukon in Canada (IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER!) then to Iceland in the spring.
Getting out of your immediate environment to experience a new place reminds you that life is worth living — that the world is worth exploring.
7. Do what you love.
Losing a loved one is a painful reminder that life is WAY. TOO. SHORT. And that loved one would want nothing more than for you to be happy — not the watered-down, half smile, day-to-day getting by content happy, but truly happy.
People would tell me, “Keep yourself busy.” I agree, but don’t keep yourself busy doing something that doesn’t make you happy.
Keep yourself busy by taking the time to figure out what it is that you love. Set goals and build a plan to make your dreams become a reality.
Jeff was a writer. His goal was to write a novel. He lost his fight before he finished.
Is this not the perfect time for you to live with purpose? To motivate yourself, embrace your newfound strength and take a chance to wake up every morning grateful? What makes you happy? Focusing your energy to go after a dream is a positive way to give back to yourself, for yourself. Because you DESERVE IT.
8. Cherish the memories of your loved one.
There was a time when I couldn’t focus on anything other than the sight of my family at Jeff’s funeral. The pain on my parents face. Trying to put on a strong face for my kids and NOT puling it off.
I was so wrapped up in the idea of his death that I didn’t give myself a chance to celebrate his life. I couldn’t even cherish the memories we had during his time in the world because I filled my mind with every facet of his death.
How selfish was I to overlook 40 plus full years of his life and push all of those wonderful memories away for two measly hours?
I realized that my brother will never truly be gone. He is still here with me in spirit. Yeah, yeah, but what does that even mean?
Celebrate their lives; don’t focus on their death. Cherish the memories, continue their legacies. They’re never truly gone — they are always here with us in spirit. And be grateful for the opportunity to learn from and experience life with them.
9. Give yourself time to heal.
There’s no magical, invisible wall clock that’s ticking, pressuring you to get over and “deal with” your loved one’s passing. There’s no one telling you that you need to fly past the “angry” or “confused” stage by next week, month or even year. You’re allowed to take as much time as you need to heal.
Don’t think that you have to get back to “normal” — that will never happen, and it’s a damn good thing. The pain you feel when you miss them is never going to go away, but that’s okay. Because you’re stronger than you have ever been in your life, and you’re capable of doing things that you were never capable of doing before.
You are not expected to be perfect. Your struggles build your character. Your experiences make you unique. You are intricate, complicated, seasoned and beautiful. Don’t ever be ashamed of your past. Just remember that the decision to start the healing process is entirely up to you. So when you’re ready, get out there and take a chance on yourself to find peace past the pain.
10. Don’t Make Lasagna For People
We had a house full of people between Jeff’s death and funeral. We have some great neighbors and friends who all were bringing over food. We had 10 different lasagnas in our house at one time. Be crazy- make a stew OR COOKIES.