It's been nearly two years since my little brother Sacha's tragic and untimely death at the age of 28. After his passing, I never thought I'd make it past the first day, let alone find myself writing these words 730 days later.
Though I've made it this far, my journey has been far from gracious.
While my parents and surviving brother, Jovan, grieved -- my experience was different, complicated. I have been twisted, bent and broken but -- I think-- into a better shape.
I didn't talk or write about this for a long time because I didn't want sympathy. I wanted to be alone to ruminate in my pain and stay connected to my brother in any way possible. Out of what seemed like self-preservation, the opinions and the "Oh my goshes, I can't imagine" were unwelcome. I was angry, overwhelmed with sadness, lost, worried about my parents, lonely and mad that I wouldn't see or ever talk to my baby brother ever again; then I was sad all over again. This roller coaster of emotions and confusion continued to spiral for a long time. I desperately wanted to -- needed to -- 'figure it out' and understand the larger meaning so that somehow I could experience peace and love in my own heart again.
Today would have been Sacha's 30th birthday. So in the best way I know how, I've gathered all my thoughts, my pain and my sadness from this tragedy to honor his memory. My hope is that this can help anyone in his or her darkest days find a silver lining.
1. You will learn to laugh again.
Moments after a police officer told me that my baby brother was dead, I watched the EMT carry his body out on a stretcher. Then I cried. That ugly, full-body-shaking type of crying. And I never thought the tears would stop.
After the wake, we all gathered at my house to watch the Giants, Sacha's favorite team, play. Over beer and wings, my cousins and I reminisced about a prank Sacha had played on me when we were kids. We laughed and laughed until our stomachs hurt. Then, we all went silent. Although nobody said it, I know we were all feeling immense guilt because I don't think any of us expected to laugh so soon. But it was in that moment when we were able to laugh again that I saw a glimmer of hope.
2. Don't let the guilt consume you.
Here's the thing: guilt isn't always logical -- it can be an erratic 300-pound weight that will cripple you whether it's justified or not. I sometimes feel like the most selfish person in the world. My friends saw the worst, ugliest side of me. The burden of my personal grief took a toll on my family, especially my parents, who were coping with losing their own child. For that, I felt immeasurable guilt.
We're a tight-knit family, but like any brother and sister, Sacha and I also fought. I felt a guilt that ate my insides. I should have talked to Sacha more, should have let him know how much I admired him, should have let him know I really valued the life insights he was constantly imparting on me. That's a lot of "should haves" with absolutely no certainty, yet they run through my mind on a nonstop loop. I know I couldn't do anything to prevent Sacha's death, but deep down I know I could have been a better sister to him, and that's something I live with each and every day.
Sacha was always laughing, always the life of the party -- I envied that about him, how people just seamlessly gravitated towards him. I know he would want me to honor his memory by living each and every day to the fullest, and it would absolutely devastate him to know that I stopped living after he passed. But still, the guilt never goes away -- there are times when I'll be laughing and really enjoying myself and I forget about him for a little while. Then suddenly I'll remember my parents, my other brother, Jovan, and worry how they're doing. So, while guilt may be a part of a person's grieving process, it's also important not to let it overtake your life, the way I let it overtake mine.
3. Pain can make you a better person.
I am not the same person I was a year ago, and that statement is both terrifying and cathartic. I needed a very long time -- and many sleepless nights -- to process and accept that I had changed.
Through the passage of time, Sacha's sudden loss has enabled me to rebuild my life in a way that has given me a deeper perspective on life, on relationships and on what really matters. I now find beauty in the most innocuous things and am grateful for so many things I previously took for granted.
4. You just can't save everyone.
A few weeks after Sacha's death, I quit a job I loved and moved down to Sarasota, Florida, where my parents live, because I was simply overwhelmed with devastation. I couldn't stop worrying about the toll this had taken on my parents and I felt like since Sacha had somehow "failed" us by dying, it was on me, as one of their two surviving children, to make up for him.
It was very irrational thinking and, ultimately, detrimental to my own recovery, because it only temporarily distracted me while simultaneously suppressing my own anger, sadness and loneliness. But still, there's this weird crash course when you lose a sibling. I became so worried about keeping my family together -- I felt like I had to almost "babysit" my parents.
I was also petrified with the feeling that something terrible would happen to my other brother, Jovan, my parents or someone else I loved. Every time the phone rang, my stomach would start to churn and I'd worry it'd be "the call" again. If Jovan or my mom didn't answer my call, I'd convince myself something bad may have happened to them. I guess it was part of my recovery process after something so shocking and tragic, but I let that crippling fear take over, and it paralyzed me to the core. But the truth is that I can't save anyone. I am not a superhero or God and I can't prevent tragedy from happening again.
But what I can do is live my life the best way I know how using all these new found insights. Every day, I smile and remind myself of something or someone I'm grateful for, which sounds simplistic in nature, but on "bad days," it's easy to forget.
I know Sacha would want me to find things that bring out my happiness. While he hasn't come to me in my dreams yet, I know he's with me when I'm having fun, patting me on the back and telling me he's proud of me.
5. Resist the self-pity.
The most unimaginable tragedy happened to my family, and I spent the majority of the last two years pitying myself and resenting others. In a weird way, I felt some type of warped emotional superiority to other people in the sense that my problems somehow trumped theirs and "they didn't get it." What I've learned the very hard way is that giving into the pity, the anger, the resentment is just as dangerous as swallowing poison. Asking questions like "Why me?" won't help.
All we can do is accept it and figure out how to move on with our lives. What will help is getting up day after day and living "the new normal" in the way our departed loved ones would have wanted us to.
6. Put yourself first. No, really.
Maybe it's part of being the oldest child, but I'm constantly worrying about how Jovan is doing. Or how my parents are coping today -- I can only imagine that losing a child is the worst possible pain any parent can ever endure. I worry about their marriage and the profound effect Sacha's death could have on their relationship. But you know what? They are incredibly strong and all they want is for me to live my life to the fullest, just as Sacha would have wanted. They're constantly reminding me to think of myself, take care of myself, and I'm realizing I ought to listen.
7. There's no rushing through grief.
The biggest hurdle in conquering grief is learning how to move forward while part of your heart is forever frozen in time. To accept that the world is still moving and that people are smiling and living life while your world has been shattered. That was a very difficult and exhausting struggle for me.
As I navigated through the five stages of grief, I experienced cognitive dissonance. I was under the impression that I'd seamlessly transition from one stage to the next and didn't realize it wasn't a linear process and, in fact, there is often crossover between the stages. Some days, I felt sadness and acceptance; other days I felt anger and acceptance. It was a tumultuous process and one that can only be mastered through experience. So what I would say is to give yourself time -- there is no rushing through grief.
The most profound lesson I have learned is that grief is the price of love; real, raw love from every ounce of your being. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with peace of mind and gratitude. Other times, my feelings get the best of me, and I crumble. It changes day to day.
My heart will be forever broken, but I will not quit smiling. I cherish every moment of the 28 years I had with Sacha. I now honor his spirit by prioritizing my relationships and constantly going out of my way to say, "I love you."
Happy 30th birthday and thank you, Sach -- my stubborn ass is finally listening to you.
Tanya Hayre is a media strategist at Powell Communications. She lives and works in New York City. You can follow her on twitter @tanyahayre.