For a while after my brother died I stopped living too.
I felt the ice-cold wave of grief hit me as my mother hugged me tightly at the hospital doors and spoke the words ‘He’s gone.’ I gulped for air under the weight on my chest and a chill seeped into my bones.
I had just flown 6000 miles, driven another 50 and run the 100 yards across the hospital car-park to be with him before the end. My plane landed at 4:45 on a Thursday afternoon and he had died at 4:50.
He was still there, lying quietly. I held his hand, kissed his forehead and said his name over and over again. That was eight months ago, two months after his 26th birthday.
He had battled on and off with a rare bone cancer for five years before he died, and when we finally understood that we were going to lose the war, my Dad asked us all to write a letter to him. Many people die suddenly with no chance for goodbye and I love you.
We had the chance, so we needed to take it.
I put off writing my letter for some time. I just didn’t know what to say. How could I even begin to comprehend a world where my little brother was absent, his existence finite? How could I ever hope to express what his presence meant to me? No words of mine seemed big enough or strong enough. For a time there seemed to me to be no hope, no light and no life in the shadow of the death I was anticipating. I couldn’t see meaning in it or myself beyond it.
Our brothers and sisters are reflections of us, and we of them.
We are mirrors of one another, reflecting uniquely. Although we may be different in many ways, we are also the same. We have had the same beginnings, the same family. We share a story and together, we give the story meaning and context. Thus, if a sibling dies, part of that story, part of our identity dies too.
Together, my brother, my sister and I learnt to ride bikes, played fairies at the bottom of the garden, spent long idle school holidays in the sun, loved and lost pets, grandparents and childhood illusions—we were each other’s witnesses.
I did not think that I would be a witness to my brother’s whole life and death. I’m the big sister. I’m supposed to go first. So when I came to write my letter I made a promise to him; I promised to live my life in memory of his, to be his witness.
I promised to pay more attention to my life because of him. I promised to be more present because he was absent.
I didn’t know then how the grief I felt later would make me break that promise for a while. In the wake of his death, I became absent too.
For a long while I was numb. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I treaded water for a while, but then the grief threatened to drown me: an all-consuming thing. It was dark and deep and I at times I thought I may not surface. I looked for signs, for meaning: buoys to cling to until I could swim my way to the other side.
Sometimes I just let go entirely and allowed it in. I let myself disappear into it. It was only when I surrendered to it, surrendered the weight of myself to it, that I was able to see the light of the surface again.
I started to see clearly.
When I did open my eyes again I realized that I could never see things in the same way again and that I didn’t really want to.
The most surprising thing of all is that I am grateful for my grief.
I am grateful because facing my grief means I am compelled to live awake, to connect in real ways with the people I care about and to be present in my skin and in the moment, every moment. This is because if I’m truly living here and now my grief is always bearable. I’m compelled to live in the light of my own death because I can no longer ignore it.
There’s nothing like the death of someone young, alive and close to turn on the light in our heads—the light that’s off whenever we are half-awake to the miracle and the reality of our own limited life. It’s only when we can accept this that we might start to taste the miracle of the infinite beyond.
It actually feels better to be awake despite this pain. This pain means that I love and that I am alive. So, I let it be and I breathe in and I breathe out. When I do that I discover that I am not this pain—I exist in the ever-quiet place behind it.
I play hide and seek with my son. I dig my vegetable patch. I hug my husband tightly. I get on my yoga mat. I have a hot bath. I do things my brother loved to do, like swim and enjoy dirty jokes and eat good food.
My eyes are open. I have left my illusions at the bottom of my ocean of grief. The self that I once thought I knew is gone, and I am more present than ever.
They were here with us, and now we are here without them.
Although they are gone, they will never leave. We long for just one more chance to see them and yet we see them in everything. They are nowhere, but they are everywhere.
If we are to have life after death, eternal life, we need to let go of that which is gone, that which never really was, that which we have constructed, in order to open our eyes and see that which remains, that which is true.
In the end, death points us to the one simple answer to all the big questions about who we are and why we are here. Because what remains after death? Only love.
“Let your will burn in this fire so that it takes you nowhere else. Let your self be burned in this fire of eternity, love and peace. Don’t be afraid of this fire, it is love itself.” – Papaji
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Author’s own