Your only sister just died. Or your mother. A niece, a cousin, a child. You feel cracked and lost.
You watch the world around you continue to spin, while your life stands still as a statue.
Many of you are young like I was, just beginning to arrange the collage of your grownup life. You say you don’t know how you’ll get through this. You can’t picture yourself being able to move on, get married, have children, or even hold down a job.
And though I build my life around words, when you tell me how much it hurts, words sometimes fail me.
Because I remember.
The chill of shock, the sudden launch from my ordinary life, the life with an intact family that I’d taken for granted.
I remember realizing that my old life, the one with a brother, was gone, a bridge I’d been hurled from. I knew that some unfathomable day, my life would be different, but in the beginning, I was stuck in the in-between, the purgatory, living neither in the old life or the new life, but in the chasm in between.
I remember the morning after I found out he died. After a night empty of sleep, I watched the steady sun rise, black birds sweeping through the air, headlights on cars pushing through the dawn. I wondered how it was possible that life was continuing.
I remember the naked, helpless feeling that anyone I loved could now be lost at any moment. It felt like losing gravity, the pieces of my universe suddenly floating and trembling, and there was no way to steady them.
I tell you that your loss is still so new, so raw, and that I’m so, so sorry.
I tell you that what helped me was the slow drip of time. That somehow, from those metallic, jagged, first moments, when the words careened through my head over and over again: my brother is dead, my brother is dead— I began to absorb the loss. The permanence. I became acquainted with the word never, and I rubbed my fingertips along the smooth metal of the word, trying to comprehend.
That I moved back home with my parents, whom everyone kept urging me to be strong for, when strong was the last thing I felt.
I tell you that I went for long walks, stepping over rolling pink worms, over ants the size of fingernail clippings, because life just seemed too fragile, too impossibly easy to break, and I couldn’t bear to bring any more loss to the world.
That I tried to sit with old friends and lose myself in their lives. I listened to them talk about dating and school and work, and I nodded my head, all the while those words still pulsing through me: my brother is dead, my brother is dead, the words hanging like a thick curtain,separating me from them.
That I sat in tight circles with widows, with mothers who’d lost daughters, and though the losses were different, we spoke the same language. We shared the same dark freefall of grief, the loss of gravity, the sudden shift in orbit. I rested there with them, listening to my feelings fall from their lips.
That I wrote letters to my dead brother because it helped me cry, and it helped me remember. And some days I needed to cry, because then I could peel my pajamas off and get dressed. And I would go for a walk, watching for small, breathing things.
That I turned towards my grief, I let it soak me and shape me. I understood how people could turn away from it, bending instead towards oblivion in its many forms. I understood how easy it might be to do that, to let my own life burn away too. But I didn’t. From some still lake deep inside me, resilience bubbled up.
And somehow, all these aching moments curved into seasons.
And the grief, the missing, the brutality of never didn’t stop, but ever so slowly, microscopically, it softened. The rawness, the bloodiness, dissipated. And I started, so slowly I couldn’t even see, to wrap gauze around the wound. The gauze of time, the gauze of moments piled up without him, of small splashes of sunshine and rest.
After a few more seasons, I went back to school. I made new friends, and I kept writing about my brother. I still missed him viscerally. But amidst the worries about my parents and the future and the brutal fragility of life, I too started thinking about boys and school. About where I’d land.
Strings of skin criss-crossed my wound, the place where my brother was and never again would be, and they glistened there, pink and raw and gleaming, the most delicate new growth, the tender first signs of healing.
And maybe this is the hardest part to believe. The part that I can’t really tell you, because you have to live it to believe it.
There were gifts, too. Yes, I would’ve traded them for a day, an hour, a moment with my brother. But I couldn’t, and so I learned to breathe in the moments. And I learned we all lose, we all experience tragedy, and mine may have seemed too young and too big and painful, but each of us grieves, and it connects us to one another, like the strands connecting me with those widows and bereaved mothers. The same strand that connects me to you. You know too¸ we say without saying it. You know about the bone-deep ache. We peer at each other’s wounds, at the shiny patches of scarred skin, different from our own, but also the same.
My grief for my brother shaped me. It broke me so wide open, I had no choice but to rearrange myself, to build myself anew. The muscles of my heart grew stronger. My love more fierce. My words more true.
Over dozens of months, I built a life around my wound. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you, I still whisper on birthdays and holidays, or when I watch my kids hug after a day without each other.
And sometimes, just on an ordinary day like today, I still miss him like a limb, and his goneness crushes me all over again.
But I built a life around the missing. And it is full.
We die, we die, we die. I remind myself over and over again, absorbing it, because it allows me to breathe deeper and love harder and feel each speck of air, each molecule, fill my lungs and release. Feel drops of sunshine on my skin. The sweet smell of my children’s necks, my husband’s forehead, the pine sap dripping in the yard. These slices of my life that I couldn’t have imagined in the hollow days after my brother’s death. And yes, some days it all feels too unsteady, too free of gravity, and I want to hold on so tightly my fingers clench and whiten. But if it were all guaranteed, it wouldn’t all be so achingly sweet. Love wouldn’t be so swollen, so clenched, so aching.
I tell you that with all my heart, I believe that if you just keep walking and crying, remembering and reaching out, you will move through this. You will build a life around the space where they were. I hope it is a lovely one.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Alex at Flickr