“You’ve got to be strong for your parents.”
I don’t remember the faces of the people at my brother’s memorial service who urged me to be strong. I just remember the way their words felt: Cruel. Impossible. I tried to shrug them off, but they clung to my gauzy black dress, then burrowed deeper, stinging my skin.
I’d just lost the person I was supposed to get a lifetime with. And I needed to somehow “buck up”? I would’ve done anything for my crushed parents—but be strong? That was well out of reach.
Instead, I fell apart. At 24, I moved back into my parents’ home. For months, I crept into their bed at night like a toddler. I stayed in my pajamas, sobbed, smoked cigarettes, and wrote letters to my dead brother. I reread the Sweet Valley High books I’d binged on in middle school, because they were the only words I could concentrate on.
I fell apart. Or, I let grief wrench me apart. In my letters to my brother, I ached for his brutally short life. I railed at him for leaving me. I listed all the people and pets I’d trade to have him back, and I mourned the nieces and nephews I’d never meet, their unformed faces forever fogged. I suffered for my parents, who would never be the same. What no one tells us when we lose a sibling or child or spouse—we don’t only lose the person who died; we also lose the rest of our family as we once knew them. We are all, forever, changed.
I swam in the suffocating weight of being the only surviving child of grieving parents. I memorized her terrible mantra: You must live. You must live for the both of you. You must, above all else, outlive your parents.
I felt the full force of what it meant to lose someone I didn’t want to live without. The process was uneven, messy, and dark.
And then, in tiny baby steps, over months and years, I reassembled.
I became more essential, as if losing my brother had whittled me down, peeled away the excess, and left me more potent, more comfortable in my own skin. The pain didn’t evaporate, but over years, I adapted to the lost limb of him. I learned to hold space for my longing, for our lost future, for this sister who wondered if she could still be called one.
For a long time, the words, “Be strong for your parents,” haunted me. Because I couldn’t have been strong. Because it suggested that my loss was something that could be shrugged off like a sweatshirt. Because if I wasn’t strong, then I must be weak.
Now I see it differently. I realize that people don’t know what to say when something horrible happens. That the loss of a child terrifies people, and there is no language for it. So they sometimes blurt odd and hurtful things, because they haven’t yet discovered that grieving people don’t need unsolicited advice or faith or platitudes—they only need us to shine our unflinching presence and patience.
But mostly, what’s changed is my concept of what it means to be strong. At my brother’s memorial service, I imagined it meant steeling myself, sucking it up, pretending I didn’t hurt as much as I did, and getting back to my regularly scheduled life as soon as possible. But forcing the pain underground is a detour. It’s rocket fuel for addiction and dysfunction. If unattended, the wound will fester, spreading to all bordering tissue.
That’s not strength.
We tell our kids, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid—it means you’re afraid but you do the scary thing anyway.” Similarly, being strong means opening ourselves to the full and un-curated experience of being human.
Being strong means feeling it all. It means crying ourselves breathless. It means lying in a tightly curled ball for as long as we need to, slowly getting back up again, and then slipping back down, rinse and repeat. It means whispering, I can’t do this into the air, and then realizing you’re doing it anyway. It means waking up every morning for months or years until the first thought of the day isn’t always, Oh sh*t, this isn’t just a bad dream. It means realizing we need help, and asking for it. It means learning how to create a velvety space to absorb this new normal, this unwelcome transformation.
Sometimes, with the tenderness of time, it means allowing the hardest events of our lives to remake us, remind us, reignite us.