I have two brothers but without asking, I knew which brother. It was my younger brother.
Will was 29 years old and he suffered from a sensitivity to life. I shared the same sensitivity and found comfort in alcohol. He found comfort in something stronger -- opiates. And on April 22, 2012 he tried a "new" drug, fentanyl, thinking it would provide him with a short break from reality but instead it provided him with his last breath.
The thought of living a life without my little brother seemed impossible. The pain was suffocating and to be honest, I didn't want it to go away. I know that may seem weird if you've never experienced such grief, but that pain was a reminder of how much my brother's life meant to me. The pain was comforting.
I was terrified of growing away from my brother. I was so scared that my brother was going to become a distant memory and I would forget all the little things that I adored about him, even the things that drove me crazy about him. I was fearful of forgetting what his voice sounded like or the inflection only he used on words and phrases. I would have panic attacks at the thought of not remembering what it was like to hug him or what his hands looked like. I didn't want there to come a day where I couldn't hear his laugh, see his smile or remember the reasons for them both. I wanted his whole life to be like an old song I could remember for years to come.
I would relentlessly look for pictures to provide me with memories that I had forgotten about from childhood, through college, and into our adult lives. I wanted to relive any time I shared with my brother that I could pull from an old photo album, a forgotten corner of my brain, or even family and friends that could provide me with stories they remembered about him.
I was mad at myself for not remembering every single moment I shared with my brother.
I guess I thought I would have a lifetime of memories to share with him. I think that's what I grieve the most -- all the things he should be here for. It's not his death that I grieve the most, it's the years of life he doesn't get to live out.
There are a lot of things I'm sorry about -- things I wish I would have done differently. I'm sorry I didn't get sober before Will died. I'm sorry we didn't get to share recovery together. I'm sorry I thought I had more time to get it right, and I'm sorry for waking up every day thinking we will live forever. Because you never think today could be your last and the reality is that it very well is for a lot of people. No one thinks that it's the last time you will go to sleep or wake up or talk on the phone on kiss goodbye. You think there will be more of it all. You think you have forever.
There have been days that the pain and fear have been so paralyzing that it's all I can do to go about my day get through it. There are days I wake up and can't shake the sadness and tears betray my eyes every hour or more. There are the "life's not fair" days that I get angry at everything including my brother. And it's all okay. There's no rhyme or reason to grief. No two people will ever do it the same, not even family.
There are birthdays and holidays and family traditions that will forever be different. There are new babies being born, friends and family members getting married and new family traditions that take shape and Will should be there for them all but he isn't. There are a variety of emotions leading up to any big milestone where I prepare my mind and my heart that my brother will not be there. Sure, our family experiences joy and we celebrate life on all occasions but even the happiest of times are a little tender with such a absence missing from our hearts.
So much of grief is experienced alone, and I think that's the hardest part of grieving.
At least that has been my experience. I rarely call anyone or even share the thousands of things that trigger outburst of tears and days of sadness. I do it alone because grief is so personal and unique. Maybe I think no one else will understand my individual grief. Maybe I don't want them to understand. I have come to cherish my grief as something special between me and my brother -- something no one else is privy to -- something scared between me and Will that only we share. It's like we're ten again and share a secret made-up language that only we understand between each other.
Grieving for my brother is like being on a raft at sea. There are constant ups and downs. Even in the best of conditions I'm aware that I'm completely vulnerable to elements around me and that they could change at any moment. Waves of grief crash into me out of nowhere but sometimes I have warning and honestly, I don't know which I prefer. There are times it feels like I'm drowning, holding my breath until I can get my head above water to breathe. There are moments and periods of time where peace and calmness surround me. They can come in the midst of the storm but it's been my experience that I can always count on them to be there after.
To endure these grief storms you have to be flexible yet grounded, fragile but strong. And you have to realize and hopefully accept that you have no control over the waves and storms of grief -- when they come, how long they stay, even their intensity. Hopefully you will come to appreciate them and the beauty and growth they provide. No storm lasts forever. You find hope in knowing the sun always comes out and you know then it's time to repair and rebuild and so that's just what you do.
You realize that grief will never let you forget the person you grieve.
In some ways, I've grown closer to my brother through grieving him. It's not the relationship I wish I could have with him. Obviously, I wish he was here. But I'll ride out all the waves and storms of grief knowing I always emerge a little stronger, and a little softer, remembering his life like an old song I'll never forget.
Old Photograph of me and Will, Hawaii 1985
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.