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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.