Grief and Growth: Accepting the Dark Stuff

Writing about my brother, Josh, is something I’ve always struggled with. It’s something I’ve done anyway, despite the struggle. It never comes easy, and it’s always a process.

Grief is a bumpy, bumpy process.

The struggle with my brother dying doesn’t exist entirely in the fact that, my brother is dead. Of course those four words are hard to swallow, even now. I could say he “passed away”, but those euphemistic phrases politely indicating he’s not around anymore are usually said to make the people around you feel more comfortable with unfortunate news. It softens the blow a, for them anyway, but to me it still feels the same.

Death, if nothing else, is extremely uncomfortable.

Half of my struggle with writing about losing my brother selfishly resides in my own writing process. You can’t finesse death. You can’t make it look pretty or manufacture it to your liking. It doesn’t matter how many times I tidy my work, I never walk away feeling like I’ve given his death any justice. I’m never sure which details I’m supposed to zoom in on. The contrast between thinking my father was kidding when he told me he was gone, and seeing him motionless for the very first time. My father keeping his sunglasses on so the rest of the would couldn’t see how affected he was by the death of his own son. Hearing my mom sobbing during the first thunderstorm after the funeral when she realized she wasn’t there to keep him dry. Which details do people want to hear about? Maybe that isn’t important. Still, I hyper-focus on whether or not what I’m writing is too contrived. I lose sight of what I’m actually writing about, or why it’s important to me:

That dealing with grief, and the loss of a loved one, extends far beyond lowering a coffin into the ground. Accepting grief and the loss of a loved one continues long after they are actually gone. Long after the counseling. Long after the support groups. Long after the sympathy cards, and the boxing of things, and you’ve heard for the millionth time that various people know EXACTLY how you feel because they lost their grandmother a few months ago. Long after you finally get to a place where year after year you’re used to telling yourself that losing people becomes part of life.

But losing people never really feels okay.

The other half of my struggle resides in the fact that I don’t want people to feel sorry for Josh, or for my family, or for me. But truly, that’s all I ask — because that is the other half of this that makes writing about his death so damn hard. We’re okay. Seriously. My mom is traveling with her husband in her early days of retirement, my dad is living the good life on the beach, and me, well, I’m chasing crazy dreams in New York. And that’s why I relentlessly keep to write about this in a way that is clear. Poignant. Not too messy, but not too fragile. Not too stoic, but not too emotional. Trying to understand, accept, and be at peace with it, while acknowledging that maybe this is a wound time won’t ever fully heal. If we weren’t doing great, I wouldn’t be sharing this part of my life with the Internet. I Promise.

That said, every year on this day I get caught in a trap of, “Why wasn’t it me?” The obvious answer is that my brother was simply born first. He was in the car. I wasn’t. Of course, I’m searching for an answer more spiritual than that, and I’m aware I may never find it. Sometimes I imagine what life would be like to have a big brother. Would we bicker? Of course. Would he judge the guys I’ve dated? God, I hope so. Would I love his face off? Absolutely. Is any of that healthy to think too much about? I have no clue. If I had to take a guess, probably not. It’s never super healthy to focus on things that are impossible to change, but it’s also impossible not to focus on them when you’re the one half of two that is left.

The relationship that I had with Josh was so atypical. When he was sick, I felt like his younger, smaller, mightier protector. Nobody could touch him without going through me. Fifteen years later, on this day, I still wake up feeling small, and I still wake up wanting to protect him, even though I can’t.

Sometimes I think that, if given the chance, I would switch places with him in a heartbeat. I would sacrifice my experiences so that he could have a go. My loved ones would have me admitted and locked away for saying that. Then I remember that I am here, on this earth, to protect them, too. And it doesn’t matter how many times the people you love tell you they don’t need you to protect them. You always do.

When I get caught in the trap of, “Why am I the one who is here?” That is the answer I always land on.

We are ALL still here to protect each other.

When I write about Josh, sometimes I catch myself gravitating toward the positive things I learned and gained from knowing and loving Josh. There was a goodness in Josh that I’ve yet to witness in another human being, a goodness I hope I’ve learned from. In the 15 years that followed Josh’s death, grief has shown its face in more forms than I care to count. Holidays, graduations, birthdays, weddings, milestones where I searched for a face in the crowd I knew I’d never see. It would be easy to shy away from the dark stuff when writing about Josh, because who wants to be sad all the time? Grief is a naked experience. You have to prepare to bare all. But the older I’ve become the more I’ve learned that sometimes the dark stuff is where the good stuff is.

That’s where you grow the most.