A friend of mine lost his brother the other day. Reading about it on Facebook all the memories from my own brothers death roared back into my head. Then, out of the blue, this friend contacted me. He remembered that I had lost a brother and wanted to know, how to go on. When does it get easier (or even bearable).
2 years ago, my younger brother died. I remember where I was sitting when the phone rang and I heard my mothers words. Words that seems so foreign yet matter of fact when she told me he lost his battle with cancer. It was the most impactful day of my life. In the thickness of shock, I didn’t realize that the rest of my life would be measured in before and after. Before, when my family was intact. After, when I would somehow learn to live without the person I was supposed to get a lifetime with. As the oldest brother I was racked with guilt because I SHOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO DO SOMETHING.
“Be strong for your parents,” said blurs of people at Jeff’s memorial service. I nodded, but inside me, something twisted. I stood in a daze as people streamed by, offering their awkward words and hugs. Be strong for your parents? I thought.
I was barely breathing. I was barely standing here. Strong was the last thing I felt.
At his memorial I did gain strength from others. The stories everyone shared. I even found myself sharing a laugh.
In the early months after Jeff’s death, I existed in a heavy fog. Nothing was as I knew it. I didn’t know if I could go back to work. I didn’t know how I would face people. My friends were living their lives — going to school functions, working, falling in and out of love and lust. Meanwhile, I felt like my life had stopped.
Having always taken comfort in words, I scoured the internet for a book for someone like me — an adult whose adult brother had died. What I found was unimpressive: There were more books on losing a pet than losing a brother or sister. A few books existed for surviving children after a death in the family, but they were for small children. One memoir documented a sister’s grief following her brother’s death, but it was out of print.
What did it mean that there were no handbooks for me? That people asked me to be strong in the face of the biggest loss I’d ever experienced or imagined? At times I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel so shattered, especially in the shadow of my parents’ immense loss.
A few months later, I was at a cafe and there was a group of people at the table next to me discussing loss. It was a local grief group. They invited me into their circle I and I sat with a few widows and widowers, a woman whose daughter had died, and a woman whose mother had died. I was younger than any of them by at least 20 years, but I could relate to their shares: “I feel like I’m going crazy.” “I’m so damned angry right now.” “I can’t sleep at night.”
Though the losses were different, the feelings were the same.
So much was lost:
My parents, who would never be the same. Their pain was almost visible, as if a piece of their bodies had been cut out. I had lost myself, too, or at least the version of me that was unscathed by tragedy: an innocent version, who walked around in some parallel universe where his brother was still alive, ignorant to the incredible fortune of an entirely alive family.
The future. I cried for my nephew and nieces. They were too young to lose their father. I cried for my own children who would never know my brother that well. How would I explain him? How would I ensure that his essence wasn’t lost, that he wasn’t just a figure in old photographs, a handful of stories?
And all the hard times ahead when my brother wouldn’t be by my side. I then realized that I had to stay alive. I had the Burden of needing to stay healthy, to stay safe, to stay close.
I felt like our family had been a four-legged table, and one leg had suddenly been torn off. The remaining three of us wobbled and teetered. We felt the missing leg like an amputee, each morning waking to the horrible fact that Jeff was gone.
I wrote letters to my brother in those early months and years. At first, memories blazed through my head and I used the letters to capture them before they flitted away, gone forever: my brother walking towards me when we visited him in Maine, the sun splattering his cheeks, turning him golden. The times water skiing at the lake.
Later, I wrote the letters when I needed to cry — when the grief sat coiled and waiting in my chest, needing to be let out, released. I couldn’t find the words of other bereaved sisters or brothers to bring me comfort, so I created my own.
One day, when I was lost in my sadness, a friend said, “You won’t always feel like this. You have a family of your own. You’ll move on.” This seemed impossible in my 47-year-old skin. I couldn’t imagine this potential future my friend of.
But very, very slowly, I began putting my life back together. Going back to work, to a place that I loved and that loved me was the best therapy one could have. The sibling love between my own two children is palpable; they argue and giggle, they laugh at an inside joke and they tease my wife and I. I want them to know that the love they feel for each other is the love that all my brothers have (and had) for each other. That one day, one might be gone so treasure every minute. Though sometimes adult siblings aren’t able to close the distance between them, all those shared experiences and time and space and relationships matter. They tether us, they twine our stories together. I pray that my children remain close as they grow, and that they enjoy a long lifetime together.
After nearly 2 years, the sharp shock and grief I felt in those early months are gone. It took a while for the pain to fade, for the words “your brother is dead” to stop pounding in my head — but they did. Jeff’s absence is mostly a dull hurt, the ghost of an old broken bone that aches when it rains. I feel it more on holidays and anniversaries.
I’ll always wish he was still here. I’ll always wonder what he would look like and what he’d be doing if he was still alive — at 45. At 50. At 75. I know for sure he would be laughing at some of the dumb things I do. He would roll his eyes when I drop a piece of food off my plate.
I move on and through. Perhaps I am even strong, like those well-meaning mourners at my brother’s memorial asked me to be. But my brother’s loss will remain with me for my whole life — just like he was supposed to. But sometimes, you just need to go on…
Tony V. I never met you, but your brother is a great guy. I know that you will be looking out for him. Please help him find the strength he needs to get through these days. And please when you see my brother Jeff. Tell him I love him and I miss him every day. And let him know that his kids are awesome.