When the Worst Things that Happen to us Become the Best.

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I used to play this game after my brother died.

A bargaining game. I’d give this all back for one more day with my brother, I’d think after reflecting on something positive that had happened. It could be a reconnection with an old friend, or extra time spent with my aging grandparents—any kernel of goodness that had arisen that wouldn’t have if my brother had still been alive. It was a mental game played by the grief-stricken—Would Ya’ Trade It: A Game of Magical Thinking.

In those first blurry days of grief, I told my aunt, “I don’t want to be one of those people who you can just look at them and see that something terrible has happened to them. I don’t want to be like that.” I felt stained. Marked. I knew that this loss would cast a shadow over my life.

And in some ways, it has.

I will always miss my brother. I will always avert my eyes from the “For Brothers” category of Hallmark cards at the grocery store. I will always wish I didn’t know what it’s like to watch my parents grieve a child. To peel away the life I’d anticipated, the nieces and nephews I’d have, the smiling, most familiar face at my wedding. The holidays. The spats. The shared childhood memories.

And yet. With time—a lot of time—my brother’s death reshaped my life. It broke me enough that I had to put myself back together in a different way, a more tender yet stronger way. Before, I’d been a little lost—flailing in my college classes, dating a string of boys with substance abuse issues, procrastinating my dream of being a writer.

After, I became more focused. Life was no longer something that would trickle on forever. Love became more deliberate—if someone mattered to me, I let them know. I vowed to write, to share my story with other people who’d lost a brother or sister. I felt like I owed it to my brother to live a good life.

And to survive my grief, I paid attention to the small blessings that appeared.

At first, they were small and simple. The cards that poured into our mailbox for weeks after my brother’s death, sharing memories of my brother, warm words, and stories of their own losses. A reconnection with family friends. The deep, pooling compassion that began to grow in me, connecting me to the current of suffering that eventually reaches all of us.

Other times, the gifts were more substantial.

A young man and I sat across from each other on stools, chatting. The awkwardness that had blanketed our first blind date began to melt away as we shifted from small talk into something deeper.

“So you’re just moving back to Maine? Why did you leave before?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. I paused for a moment, examining my fingernails, before deciding how honest to be with this almost stranger. “I left two years ago when my brother died.”

He looked straight at me. “You know, I’d never lost anyone until a year and a half ago,” he said. “When my dad died.” The world around us hushed, and I listened to him with my whole body.

Both in our 20s, we had each gone through something serious. Something that rearranged us. This quiet, burrowing understanding connected us, twined us to each other. Something lost braided its way into something found. The beginning of a life, together.

Now, almost 18 years after my brother died, I have built a lovely life. I married that man who sat across from me as we traded stories. We have two amazing children, one of whom, against the genetic odds, has my brother’s flashing blue eyes.

I can’t play that old game of grief anymore, not because I am completely healed, but because I love this life that’s unfolded from the ashes of loss.

Because I can’t undo one thread without the whole quilt of my sweet life unraveling.

~

Author: Lynn Shattuck

Image: Ruthie Martin/UnsplashWyatt Fisher/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. She blogs about parenting, imperfection, spirit and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.

Tavia Brunner Rojas Mar 26, 2017 4:14am

I just discovered your blog - I think my story of losing my brother has similarities to yours, in terms of being in your 20s when it happened and seeing your parents change (so far), and in the thoughts that run through your head. I remember calmly telling a then-boyfriend (who wasn't good to me and who, through my brother's loss I worked up the courage to break up with), "if I could have you and him trade places, I would." We weren't even fighting - I was just being brutally, ridiculously honest. Ouch. It's pretty incredible the places grief will take your mind, and apparently, your mouth also. I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts on grief - my brother died 6 years ago, and I think I'm really just beginning to understand it. Thanks for your writing.

Lynn Shattuck Mar 15, 2017 8:45pm

Alice, so sorry for your losses. That is so much. Many hugs to you as you walk through your pain. <3

Alice Lundy Mar 13, 2017 12:41pm

Wow, Lynn. Thank you. This is both so close and so far away. I lost my brother 28 years ago. He was 27 and I was 25. I vowed to live enough life for both of us. In many ways, I lived fuller because he couldn't. I lost my mom five years after my brother's passing. However, my beloved died unexpectedly just a year ago. I knew him for decades, but we had less than two years together as a couple, bonding deeply after his mother's passing. Our connection was beyond explanation and it just kept getting better until... Thank you for writing as I cling to my belief in something beautiful again someday, although this is the most wretched loss I've eperienced and someone else ever filling the space in my heart where he lived feels unimaginable... For now. Your words help.

Lynn Shattuck Mar 11, 2017 12:48am

Thank you, Carolyn.

Lynn Shattuck Mar 11, 2017 12:48am

Mark, I'm so sorry for your loss.

Carolyn Tait Mar 10, 2017 3:15pm

<3 <3 This is beautiful

Mark Steed Mar 10, 2017 2:59pm

My mother died a few months ago after a brief illness. It changes everything. The sickness and death were horrible for everyone. I'm not sure I will ever catch up. It makes it easier when people understand.