How to Live through the Grief that lasts a Lifetime. 


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Sitting on my parents’ porch in the brisk Alaskan air after my brother Will died, grief made up a game for me to play: What would you trade to have your brother back?

My mouth moved, my voice lighter than a whisper.

I’d trade the cats, yes, even my favorite one. Of course.

I’d trade any of my friends.

I’d trade any other boy.

I’d trade anything—everything—I own.

I’d probably even trade Mom or Dad, not because I love them less than I love my brother, but because we’re born knowing we’ll outlive our parents.

The game was captivating—I could almost see my brother resurrecting, could envision him sitting next to me on the porch, blowing smoke rings that looked like cartoon thought bubbles and staring up at the sky. Here.

And then, always, the thudding reality that the game I was playing was sheer fantasy. That I was lingering in that bargaining stage of grief, mentally attempting to cease something that had already happened. This was real life, and there are no trade-backs, no swaps, no do-overs. No way to put my brother back together.

Maybe it was easier to allow my brain to perform these mental gymnastics than to attempt to answer the harder questions: How will I survive? How do I live with this constant pain? How do I soften the guilt for not somehow saving him, for being the one to live? How will I face all the small and immense milestones without him? How will I sort through the memories of our childhood without its co-keeper?

Slowly, painfully, I’d stumble toward the answers:

You write letters to him that make you cry, so the thick tangle of loss doesn’t harden and metastasize. You find other people who are grieving, and you cocoon yourself in the sameness. You laugh at the dark, ridiculous moments, like when the newspaper leaves your name out of the obituary, robbing you of this last chance to be Will’s sister—and then you realize how much your brother would love that the newspaper agrees to run the obituary twice, because who gets two obituaries? You let the moments turn into days, and you watch as they stack up on one another.

You celebrate tiny progress—like getting through an entire day without crying, even as you worry it means you’re leaving him behind.

You live, you live, you live.

In a few weeks, it will be 20 years since my brother died. I’ve missed him through so many moments, and now, my mind ponders a different riddle: What would Will be doing if he was still here? Would he be married? Divorced? Would I have nieces and nephews? What would that 20 years look like, etched into his young, frozen face?

The questions are as impossible as those other grief games, because the answers never come into focus—they shimmer and tease, always out of reach.

While I’ll never be able to conjure the life that my brother would’ve woven over the last 20 years, my own life has risen up around me. I have two bright and beautiful children, a warm and funny husband, a tight circle of friends. Even, shockingly, a new puppy—as a lifelong cat person, this fact constantly stuns me. My life is unfolding, lovely and hard, surprising and mundane.

It still breaks my heart that my kids don’t know their uncle, though they hear stories about Will, and they mention him sometimes, and it’s always the sweetest shock to hear his name on their lips.

Grief is stubborn, muscular—just like love. I will never be over my brother’s death—we don’t get over loss, we get through it. There will always be an empty space in my heart that is only for Will, that bloomed when my mother brought him home from the hospital, tiny and blue-eyed. As siblings, we were supposed to have a lifetime together. We got 21 years, and that won’t ever be enough.

And now he’s been gone nearly as long as he was here.

It seems like that should be a signpost of some sort, but the heart isn’t ruled by math. Time softens the pain and, if we’re lucky and wise, it allows us to carve meaning from it. And it blurs the memories, makes them shimmy and slide, and now I mostly remember my brother’s essence: sensitive, funny, impulsive, wild. A lovely song, ended far too soon. One that leaves me blessed, changed, brokenhearted.

author: Lynn Shattuck

Image: @ElephantJournal

Image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Editor: Catherine Monkman


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lydiarmartin Mar 21, 2019 6:18am

Wow, I wasn’t expecting this when I clicked on the link, but this cracked my heart wide open. Your words articulate so perfectly/painfully my own grief surrounding the loss of my brother. This April will mark 6 years with out him, but as I type this your insight resonates with me because those quantitative facts are irrelevant to my grieving process. Lately I find myself wanting to grasp onto memories of him that feel like quicksand slipping through my fingers.

Lindsay Bond Mar 6, 2019 2:43pm

Thank you for this. I feel this. I lost my brother about 20 years ago to schizophrenia, and while it has only been a couple years since I last saw him, the grief of the “normal” life he lost has been with me for decades. I lost my first friend, and he will never be the same. You write about “the essence” of your brother and how the felt memory of that helps – thank you for articulating that so well. That essence, and the love I still feel for him s is the available grace that has got me through it during some very hard times, and even moments recently.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 7, 2019 7:39am

    Hi Lindsay, Thank you. I’m sorry about your brother– that sounds incredibly hard. Big hugs to you. <3

nazo Mar 6, 2019 4:09am

I didn’t lose a sibling, but I did lose my dad 10 months ago…an indescribable pain and massive void. My daughter was two and a half months old when he passed. She’ll never truly know him except by stories and photos. She is now a year old and I always wonder what type of grandfather he would have been. I find myself imagining moments watching him hold her hand as she starts walking. As for me and my heart, as you’ve said, we’ll never get over it, just through it.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 6, 2019 9:35am

    I’m so sorry about your dad. It must be so painful to know your daughter won’t remember him. Huge hugs to you.

Stacy Lundberg Mar 6, 2019 4:06am

Truly beautiful, thank you for sharing Lynn. I am sorry for your loss.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 6, 2019 9:34am

    Thank you, Stacy. I appreciate your kind words.

kayla_cohen13 Mar 5, 2019 10:04pm

Lynn, I’m so sorry about your brother. Your writing always resonates deeply with me as I lost my little brother when he was 25. He wasn’t at my wedding, and he will never meet my daughter who is now 1.5 and would have loved him so much. Thank you for sharing your story, it has brought me some peace over the last few years.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 6, 2019 9:33am

    Thank you Kayla. I’m so sorry about your brother, too. All the milestones are so bittersweet. Big hugs.

myacsm Mar 5, 2019 9:36pm

Lynn, I felt my grief for my little brother deep again while I read yours. We are all connected. I see you. I feel you. And a previous comment, I agree – the only way is THROUGH it.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 6, 2019 9:30am

    Thank you so much for your heartfelt comment.

Alice DeRosa Mar 5, 2019 1:47pm

I needed to read this I lost my brother over 30 years ago he was only 18 years old he died in a car accident. This really touched my heart.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 5, 2019 4:05pm

    I’m so sorry about your brother. The loss and love stick around for a lifetime, don’t they?

Kate McKay Mar 5, 2019 8:53am

Surreal…. I lost my brother when he was 22. Then almost two years ago, my son Will took his own life. The grief never goes away because I piece of you dies with them. Yes, life is beautiful. Yes, I have survived and flourished. Yet the grief I have for my other two children doubles, triples my knowingness that their lives too will never be the same. It sucks. And yet we all press on. Love to all, Kate

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 5, 2019 9:01am

    Kate, I’m so sorry about your brother and your son. So much love to you and your family. <3

Peggy Klineman Mar 5, 2019 8:36am

I loss my sister in 1979 and your beautifully written article resonates so much my own experience. Her birthday would have been on the 27 of February. thank you for helping me remember her.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 5, 2019 9:00am

    Hugs, Peggy. I’m sorry about your sister.

onesam1740 Mar 5, 2019 7:50am

The only way is through. Thank you for sharing your heart and view from the journey. You are an amazing sister!

Isaweilweil Mar 5, 2019 7:48am

This helped me so much with the loss of my father and brothers, I feel way better and I don’t feel as lonely.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 5, 2019 9:00am

    Glad it made you feel less alone. <3

Marilyn Regan Mar 5, 2019 7:29am

Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. My younger sister was just diagnosed with cancer and this really resonated with me.

    Lynn Shattuck Mar 5, 2019 8:59am

    Thank you, Marilyn. So sorry to hear of your sister’s diagnosis.

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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.