Coping With the Sudden Death of My Brother
An exploration of grief, empathy and the unique nature of losing a sibling.
The following is a transcript of a conversation I had with Dr. Art Markman (Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas Austin) a few weeks after my brother died unexpectedly. The audio version of the interview is available on YouTube and on Apple Podcasts.
My hope is that this will help someone cope with the loss of a loved one.
Shortly after lunch on Saturday, April 30, my two young daughters were taking naps and my wife was upstairs trying to nap herself. I went in to my home office and sat at my desk to start working on an episode of this podcast. Within seconds of sitting down, I received a text message from my mother, who lives in La Paz, Bolivia. Her message asked me to call her urgently.
I’ve lived away from Bolivia for 21 years, yet this was the first time my Mom had ever used the word urgently. I called her immediately, but the call didn’t connect. She called me back, but I couldn’t hear her. It took several attempts before we finally connected. It probably took under a minute, but it felt like an eternity as my mind raced thinking about why she had asked me to call her urgently.
My first thought was that something had happened to my Dad. Perhaps he was hurt or in the hospital. I tried to reassure myself that surely it couldn’t be something serious. My immediate family had been spared tragedies my entire lifetime.
When our call finally connected, I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember my Mom doing her best to hold back tears as she told me that she was at my brother’s apartment and my brother had suffered a heart attack. I struggled to make sense of exactly what had happened. It wasn’t until she told me that the paramedics had told her there was nothing left to do that I realized that my brother had died.
Over the next few days I found myself doing things I never imagined I’d do. I wept in front of strangers at airports and on flights. I spoke at my brother’s funeral. I helped his widow sort through my brother’s belongings. I witnessed my parents suffer inconsolable pain. I held my brother’s one-year-old daughter and felt heartbroken that she wouldn’t remember him. It’s been six weeks since he died, and it’s just now starting to sink in that this really isn’t a nightmare.
As I struggled with the aftermath of my brother’s sudden death, my first instinct was to abandon this podcast altogether. Within a few days, I instead decided that I wanted to dedicate one or more episodes to him. As a shot in the dark, I sent an e-mail to Dr. Art Markman, inviting him to come on the show to discuss the grief over losing a sibling.
Dr. Markman is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-host of a wonderful podcast called Two Guys on Your Head. I’d listened to many episodes of his show and admired their insights into human nature and behavior.
Within minutes, I received a response from Dr. Markman. He said that he had also lost a brother and would be happy to help. Our conversation certainly helped me and I hope it helps someone out there too.
[Start of interview]
Dr. Markman: Losing a sibling is extraordinarily difficult on a couple of different dimensions, one of which just has to do with the kind of relationship that you have. With parents you expect — in the normal, natural course of things — that at some point you’re likely to lose parents. That’s just the way things tend to happen. As you get older, it happens to more and more of your friends. It’s sad, but it’s not unexpected.
When parents lose children, that’s devastating, of course in a somewhat different way, because now you’re looking at that future generation that you were investing time in, and love and effort, and there’s a loss there. But, again, that’s something that happens frequently, in different contexts, so there’s a tremendous amount of support for that.
There are two elements, though, that I think making losing a sibling very difficult. The first is you don’t expect this to happen, and other people don’t expect it to happen, and so socially it can be very awkward. It’s very common when people are introducing themselves to each other, for someone just as an offhand comment to say, “Oh, do you have any brothers or sisters,” and that creates a tension and awkwardness, because you’re not sure how to answer that question for people.
So I think that’s one element that makes it difficult, but the other is that we just don’t have an expectation that that’s going to happen. You know, siblings are people that you grow up with. They are a part of your, your life from the beginning. Unlike children that you may have who come into your life much later, your siblings have been with you from the beginning. You have tremendous shared experience.
Your siblings are often the only people who understand what it was like to grow up in the house that you grew up in, for better and for worse. Even if your upbringing was wonderful, they’re the only ones who shared a lot of those moments. And so when you lose a sibling, you are actually losing a connection to your childhood that is very hard to replace.
In what ways do you think grief is different when the death of your loved one is sudden and unexpected?
Dr. Markman: Grieving is a process that doesn’t have a standard way that it unfolds. Despite the fact that we’ve all heard of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, they are descriptions — and wonderful descriptions — of things that happen to people as they grieve, but no one needs to go through all of those stages to grieve in a healthy way. And so people go through different elements of this, depending on the situation.
Now, when you lose someone who has undergone a long illness or has been sick for a long time, or where it’s expected — perhaps a parent who is very, very old — it’s still a difficult loss, but you have a story that you can wrap around this, and you’ve been preparing that story for quite a while, that story of their life and the end of their life.
When you lose someone suddenly, it is a real tear in the fabric of your life story because you had a set of beliefs and predictions about how your future was going to go and very suddenly those are changed. And one of the things that happens when you get this, this rip in the fabric of your life story is that you want to weave it back together again, and as a result it’s on your mind quite a bit. There’s a real need to talk about it with other people. You can think about it — what psychologists call “ruminate” about it; ruminate comes from the, the word for chewing your cud — and, and you will chew on this event for quite a while.
It’s extraordinarily important to give yourself that opportunity to talk about it, to write about it and to begin to create a story that helps you to understand the event, even if you can’t make sense of it, right? And death in general is something that’s very hard to make sense of when someone has led a very long life and passes away surrounded by family. At least that story fits with our kind of cultural narrative of the lifespan. When someone dies suddenly unexpectedly, it doesn’t fit with that and we need to find some way of fitting that into our life story, even if we can’t quite come up with a good explanation for it.
I do my best to avoid “what if” lines of thinking — for example, what if he had seen a different doctor or they had just run a different test — because I don’t see any positive outcome. Am I misguided in encouraging others who are going through this loss with me in doing the same, or am I better off just letting them do whatever feels right to them?
Dr. Markman: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question. Of course, it’s a natural thing to engage in this kind of “what if” reasoning, in part because for many situations in our life that have gone wrong, it is useful for planning for the future to ask those “what if” questions, you know.
Let’s think about just a minor incident, right? You arrive late at the airport and miss a flight; it’s useful to play that “what if” game so that the next time you’re leaving for a flight, you’re prepared to get there on time. So it’s a very natural part of our psychology to do that.
But, as you point out, in cases of loss — and particularly cases of loss in which there isn’t really anything you can do — either about that loss in the past or anything, that this will tell you about the future that makes it valuable to engage in that reasoning. Well, at that point it may simply be a source of pain to do that.
Now, one of the things that’s important to do is to remember that different people will approach this in different ways, so some people might actually find it comforting to walk through that set of possibilities. And so I think it’s fine to let them do what they want to do.
One of the things about grief, though, is that it’s often shared and it’s important to share it. I think it’s important to grieve collectively because those people will be your support network for a long time. But if someone ends up engaging in their grief in a way that is very difficult for you, you can opt out of that piece of it.
And so I do think that it’s fine if you, yourself, are really uncomfortable with that kind of “what if” reasoning to talk with someone else who really wants to go through that process and say, “Look, I, I appreciate what you want to do. That’s really not something I can do. It’s not going to be helpful for me, and we can talk about this in other ways.”
At times I feel a sense of guilt that this happened to my brother instead of me, in part because he took much better care of himself than I do. He exercised more; he ate better; he was in better shape. Is this feeling of guilt common when losing a sibling?
Dr. Markman: Guilt is a very common part of grief in general. When Kübler-Ross described stages of grief, guilt was certainly one of them that came up quite a bit, particularly for survivors: “Why did this happen to this other person and not, not to me? You know, this person was better than I am on some set of dimensions.” I think it’s very common for that to happen. You’ve experienced a loss. You’ve experienced tremendous sadness and that influences the way that you begin to think about everything that’s associated with that relationship. And so you begin to wonder why, why would this have happened to someone else.
And the thing about death is that there are lots of relatively random elements that come into that. Sometimes it has to do with accident but also even disease. I mean whether a particular body fights a disease off or not is something that is hard to predict, and that’s why the correlation between lifespans for siblings or for members of families is actually lower than you might expect because there are just so many things that can go wrong, or right.
And there’s a tremendous amount of luck of the draw that happens, essentially randomness. And one of the things that’s important to remember is randomness is not something that the human mind deals with well. We want to find patterns. We want to find explanations. And the human body is such a complex thing, and the relationship between the human body and the environment in general, including germs and other disease processes, is so complicated that we can’t really make sense of individual cases. We can make sense of the statistics sometimes, but individual cases are very hard to make sense of, and so we don’t like that.
And so we begin to try to create explanations, and some of those explanations involve, you know, “This person did so many wonderful things, more wonderful things than I did,” and that can actually, then, create that feeling of guilt.
I read a book about coping with the death of a sibling and the following line really resonated with me: “The veil of safety has been lifted with the death of a sibling. If your sibling can die suddenly, so can you.” I feel much more vulnerable than I’ve ever felt before. Having lived through this experience, I think about how my death would affect my parents, I’m their only remaining son, my wife, my kids. Do you think this feeling of vulnerability is likely to persist for a while, or is this a temporary reaction?
Dr. Markman: That’s a really interesting question because again, if you think about the normal course of events, we kind of expect that if you’re born and let’s say, you have some grandparents when you’re born, you sort of expect that the weight of the future is going to affect the grandparents first, then the parents, then your generation afterwards.
And so there is this sense — particularly if your parents, and maybe even grandparents, are still alive — there’s this sense of safety that “I’m protected from death by the fact that there are generations still out there in front of me,” and it’s perhaps not even until you’re perhaps 50–60 years old that you begin to feel like, “I’m now the leading edge generation that is kind of the next one that’s going to begin to experience these things.”
When you experience the death of a sibling you are reminded starkly of the fact that while the normal course of things is that the oldest people are the most likely to pass away, that death can strike anyone at any age. And so when it strikes a contemporary, which could be a friend of the same age but even more so a sibling, now you begin to recognize, “Well, wow, I’m just as vulnerable.”
And not only that but you actually witness the grief of your parents and your family for someone of your generation, which is hard to imagine until it happens for the first time. And then when it happens you recognize “This is the same thing that would happen if I were the one to pass away.” And that’s — it’s difficult to watch that. So I do think that it does throw off our sense of the way life is supposed to go.
And it’s a disruption. I mean, people are much more likely to lose parents than they are to lose siblings. Statistically, if you poll your friends, you will find that there are far more people who’ve lost parents than have lost siblings. And so we just don’t have a lot of experience thinking about this, talking about it, knowing what to expect and it becomes much harder to commiserate with other people, right, because you have to look more widely to find people who’ve gone through the same experience.
I listened to the episode of your podcast about life after loss. In it you mentioned that — or Dr. Duke — one of you mentions that, after suffering a loss you should accept that you won’t be productive at anything for a while. I figure that there comes a point when it becomes beneficial to begin to focus on day-to-day activities and becoming productive again. How can one identify the threshold when that transition occurs?
Dr. Markman: Yeah. One of the things you have to do in the grieving process is really to be kind to yourself, in the sense that even when at some level, explicitly, you feel, “It’s time for me to get back to work,” you still may not end up being that productive. I lost a brother about 13 years ago now, and you know, I would say it was many months before I felt like I was really thinking effectively again on a regular basis. So there was certainly, I think, a blurry period in the first month or so where it was really hard to kind of get a grip on everything that had happened and how life was different.
After that you end up with good days and bad days. You end up with days where you wake up and you think, “You know what. I’m ready to face the world today,” and there are some days you wake up and feel that, and then halfway through the day you’re, like, “No, actually, I’m not.” [Chuckles] Some days you wake up in the morning and feel horrible. It gets better over the course of the day. And, really, what happens is over time you have more good days than bad days and you gradually find a way of navigating your life post the loss.
And so it’s not so much that you can wake up one day and say, “All right, today’s the day. From here on out I’m going to be productive.” It’s more like you ease yourself back into society, into work, into your social relationship, into time with friends.
And there will be times where you will go out to a movie or with friends to a sporting event, or whatever it is, and just put on a happy face despite how you feel in order to be out there distracting yourself from how you feel. At other times you may find, “You know what. I’m actually having a really good time today,” and there may be times where you just think “You know what, today’s not the day for me to go out. I think I’m just going to hang out by myself for a bit.” And it’s going to come and go. So it’s a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of existence. And I think you just have to accept that that’s the way it’s going to happen.
And have some people that you can talk to in those times, whether it’s other family members who are also grieving, or whether it’s friends who may have gone through similar events, or whether it’s professionals who may just be there for you to talk to. I think it’s helpful to have — to know you have someone out there you can deal with.
In that same episode you discuss the importance and effectiveness of writing about what happened. How is writing about your feelings different from thinking or speaking about them?
Dr. Markman: So as I mentioned at the beginning, one of the things that a significant loss can do is it really can tear at this fabric of your life story. And one of the things that happens with that is that that disruption will continue to call attention to itself until it’s resolved.
Now how can you resolve that? One way you can do it is to talk with other people quite a bit. And I think that when you have conversations with lots of people and tell the story over and over again, it begins to knit itself into what your life is like.
Writing about it can help, particularly if you have difficulty finding people that you can talk to about it. Writing is helpful because it also gets the story — it makes the story more coherent and it gets the story outside of yourself.
The reason that just thinking about it doesn’t help so much is that we tend, when we’re just thinking by ourselves, not to try to create a story that runs from the beginning to the end but rather to think just about fragments and to be focused on some of the things like what we were talking about before, of “Why did this happen,” or “What could I have done differently,” or, “This is monumentally unfair,” and just to get focused on those particular issues and to chew on those over and over again.
And when you do that, you don’t really create an end-to-end story that can reweave together your life story. And that’s really what you need is that story, which you can do effectively in communicating with another person or by writing, but not so much by just thinking alone.
In your episode about emotional pain and memory you mentioned that revisiting a painful experience intensifies the pain. For me, focusing on my brother’s death and its consequences is deeply painful, but I feel like it’s necessary for me to finish accepting that this really happened. On the other hand, I’m aware that I’m constantly creating diversions for myself. I guess I’m wondering if it’s inherently negative for me to revisit and think about my brother’s death.
Dr. Markman: It’s a great question. And what I say is that the answer to that question is also going to change over time. I think soon after a loss, in the six months to a year after a loss, you may find yourself revisiting those moments often, partly because you’re still working through that story and creating that story, partly as a way of feeling a final connection to the sibling you’ve lost because that begins to recede in time. And I think there are moments where the intensity of the feeling that you create can make you feel closer to the person that you’ve lost at a time where you begin to recognize that life is moving on.
So I think in that first year it’s probably best not to micromanage how often you revisit that. But I think it’s also important to recognize that whenever you call up a very difficult or painful experience that you do begin to re-experience that, and that over time you should ask yourself why you’re revising that.
One of the things that it’s important to do when grieving, at some point in that first year, is to give yourself permission to experience joy again, to recognize that as tragic as the loss was, life continues to go on, and that if you look out at all of the people that you meet in your life, you begin to realize everyone has experienced losses — everyone has, has had parents, friends, loved ones, siblings, who have passed away — and that that is a part of what life is like, and that experiencing the full range of human emotions, allowing yourself to experience that sadness and that loss, but also allowing yourself to experience the joy of continuing to live is a part of life.
And so I think that there are some people who, over time, begin to revisit the loss as a way of not experiencing the joyful moments in life, of avoiding that joy because it can create a sense of guilt: “How can I be happy when this person that I loved it gone?” And I think what’s important to recognize is, if you placed yourself in the position of the person who passed on, you would want the people who were still alive to experience moments of great joy and happiness. And you have to recognize that that’s what they want as well.
And so don’t revisit the past event simply to keep yourself from experiencing the joy that life has, but do allow yourself to revisit it as a way of helping you to weave that into your life story.
Other than hurting oneself or others, do you think there are behaviors that are clearly detrimental to one’s recovery?
Dr. Markman: Yeah. I mean, obviously, as you point out, I think that there are people who end up doing things that are dangerous to themselves, self-medicating in various ways or even doing things that are more significant and physically harmful.
I think psychologically speaking, probably the most dangerous thing you can do is this process of rumination, of burying yourself in particular elements of what happened or particular questions like “What if” or “Why” or “Why not me?” That cycle of rumination is highly associated with anxiety and depression and breaking that cycle really requires stopping that rumination process, partly by creating this story that helps you to say, “Okay. I may not understand it. I may not know why this happened, but I at least have a story that runs end to end that tells me what happened.” And that, that piece is valuable because it allows you to take that step forward and to move on.
So I think that’s probably the most dangerous thing that people can do is that rumination.
There’s a saying that time heals all wounds. Do you think this is universally true for grief, or are there circumstances in which time alone isn’t enough to heal properly? You just mentioned one — if you get stuck in that cycle.
Dr. Markman: Time helps a lot, right? I mean, I think in the moment of grief, when someone has passed on, you begin to think, “Life is never going to be the same. I’m never going to experience the moments of joy I had in the past. I’m never — life is just never going to be as good as it was.” And it will always be different, but over time you also realize there are additional wonderful moments.
And again, when you look at other people in your life, you realize that they too have experienced losses and that loss doesn’t signal the end of your life; it signals one monumental occasion in your life.
Now time actually does help in a variety of ways. One of the things that happens is, as we sleep, we begin to separate some of the emotional components of our memories from the memories themselves. So, actually, as you go through time and as a result of that, you are beginning to separate out that emotional component.
And so early on, thinking about the person you lost is an emotionally devastating experience, right? It’s hard to hold yourself together, right? A month or two months after someone close to you has passed away you may burst into tears in the middle of a conversation. Years, later — it’s been many years, for example, since my brother passed away — I feel sadness when I think about him, still, although sometimes I feel joy because he’s — he was a funny guy. But I also recognize that it’s become easier to have those conversations over time, in part just because of the natural psychology of it.
So I think getting yourself through the day matters a lot, and allowing yourself to allow the passage the time to dull some of the acute, strong emotions you feel is part of what the grieving process is about.
I consider myself a fairly empathetic person, yet prior to my brother dying I had no clue how painful this experience could be, and it made me realize that in the past I had not been sympathetic enough to other people who had suffered a loss.
I mention this because I think it’s difficult for people who haven’t lived through this to know how to help someone who’s currently going through it. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to offer comfort and support to someone who just lost someone?
Dr. Markman: Yeah. That’s such a good question. I mean it is. It’s hard, right? When you haven’t experienced something yourself, it can be extremely difficult to know.
And every loss is different. The loss of a grandparent who may be — my grandmother, for example — who passed away at the age of 93 lived a life in which she was always surrounded by family; had some arthritis and other things, but never really spent a day in the hospital, except when she was delivering her children — woke up in the middle of the night at the age of 93, had an aneurysm and died. And you know what? Her funeral was sad in certain ways but mostly a celebration of a life well lived, and one that we could all aspire to. That’s a very different experience than losing a sibling, particularly a young sibling, to an illness or an accident.
So different situations are, are extraordinarily different. It can be very hard to appreciate the circumstances that people are going through.
I think the most important thing that anyone can do for someone who’s suffered a loss is to be there, to be willing to — just to talk about it, or not to talk about it, and to allow that person who’s grieving to have you as a part of their social network, to be able to reach out if they want to talk about it or if they just want to go out and do something that is distracting from it.
So I think that’s probably the most important thing that you can do, particularly in that period from about a month after the death through the end of that first year. Culturally, I think we’re very good at dealing with people in that first month. We have funerals. Different cultures and different religions have different rituals but we manage to take care of everybody pretty well for about a month, and then after that, life kind of goes on.
But the grieving process actually continues, and that first year is probably the most difficult year of that grieving process. And I think that at some point we just think, “Well, okay, we’re kind of moving on with it now.” I think it’s really important, particularly for people who have suffered these very difficult losses of an unexpected loss of a parent, a loss of a sibling, a loss of child, to just be there as a part of their social network and be available to have those kinds of conversations.
You preempted my next question. I’ve read that the full impact of a loss often begins to sink in precisely as other people begin to expect you to be feeling better.
Dr. Markman: Yeah.
Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing as well as I think other people expect me to be doing. At other times I feel a sense of guilt that perhaps I’m feeling better than I should be feeling. And it changes, right?
Dr. Markman: Right.
I imagine cultural perceptions of how one should grieve — and for how long — can affect one’s healing process, and I’ve read about the way different cultures handle this and how expectations and customs are can be very important. Do you have any thoughts on American culture and the way that it handles this process?
Dr. Markman: It’s very interesting. I think culture does a couple of things. And one of the things that culture does is to create expectations about what you’re supposed to go through. And American culture doesn’t like to talk about death very much. Some religious cultures do, but American culture broadly — really — we want to live forever; we want to be eternally youthful.
And we experience some shock when there’s a death of a celebrity. You know recently, Prince the musician, passed away. Suddenly lots of discussion for a week or two about that and then it sort of faded away. And of course, the degree to which a celebrity death — someone that wasn’t really connected to you — really affects your life is small and you feel it for a couple of weeks, right?
Well, that begins to set expectations about what death is like even when it’s a family context. And of course, it’s not. It takes place over a much longer period of time. And really, I think you have to give yourself almost a full year before you really can feel like you’re beginning to get a sense of how life is different following a loss of a significant family member.
So we have to be patient a little bit with ourselves and we have to recognize that most people in America don’t really like to deal with death, don’t like to talk about death. And so we can’t necessarily expect as much help from our social network as we might need because it makes people uncomfortable to be thinking and talking about death.
And that’s why I think it is important to create a small, tight group of people that you can talk to, whether it’s other family members, very close friends, or a support group, or even a therapist, but someone where you can have that connection and conversation so that you don’t have to feel like you are imposing on people to have these kinds of conversations in the period where you are still doing a lot of the psychological healing that goes on during the grieving process.
Do you have any advice on how I can help my parents cope with the death of their son?
Dr. Markman: It’s very hard. My brother was in his early 30s when he passed away. It hit my parents very hard, and they actually spent — he was in the hospital for the last four months of his life, and my parents were there, more or less, every day, one or the other of them, so his loss hit them very hard. I think allowing yourself to talk with them, and giving your parents that outlet that they can say whatever they need to say to you is useful.
I also think, though, that your parents — and parents of people who have lost a child — benefit a lot from finding support groups where they can talk with other parents who’ve gone through the same experience.
Because I think the death of a child and the death of a sibling are much rarer than the death of a parent — you can sometimes look around and feel like you’re the only one going through this and the only one who knows what it’s like. Having other people around who’ve gone through the same thing can be really helpful, particularly in those moments where you think, “I’m going crazy here. How can it be? It’s been six months and I’m not over this yet. I mean, am I doing it wrong?” Well, it’s helpful to have somebody else who can sit there and say, “Yeah. I know. Actually, it still comes and goes,” and that that’s okay, and to help you with those very simple kinds of things that happen.
I think parents and people who’ve lost siblings do end up dealing with those kinds of routine, innocuous questions like, “Do you have any brothers and sisters? Do you have any children?” you know? And I know it’s a hard thing. My parents, to this day are routinely asked, “How many kids do you have?” and my parents have to decide, “How am I going to answer that question?”
And I have the same thing, right? I’ve lost a sibling. People say, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Well, if I’m in a conversation at a party, do I really want to be the downer, you know? “Thanks for asking. I had a brother, and he’s dead.” That’s a conversation stopper. So how much of that do you really want to get into, and can you find a way of talking about that that provides the information without destroying the conversation in a purely social situation?
So these are things you continue to deal with for the rest of your life, and they can be socially awkward sometimes, because as a society we don’t really have a good way of talking about that.
I’ve been reading about consciousness after death, trying to find any patterns or information to feed my hope that my brother still exists somehow. I found a lot of discussions about near-death experiences. Some people think anecdotes from people who nearly died are pretty much evidence of an afterlife, while others dismiss them as hallucinations or point out that these anecdotes are remarkably inconsistent. What is your definition of “death?” At which moment do you think death occurs?
Dr. Markman: Yeah. It’s such a good question. I mean, having been in the room when my brother passed, you begin to get an appreciation that it’s really not like what you see in TV. On TV medical shows, at some point the line goes flat and then the person’s dead and they call that. And in actuality there’s continuing electrical activity in the heart even after the body has basically stopped functioning because it takes a while for the energy that bound that body together to begin to dissipate.
Somewhere in that period, which can take 15–20 minutes — half an hour — somewhere in that period the body really loses all of the energy that it had to pump blood, to have cells that are going through respiration of one kind or another. The body then loses its oxygen. The brain loses its electrical activity and over that period the body dies. How quickly that happens depends on the circumstances.
And then what happens after, that’s a tremendous mystery, right? One of the reasons why religions the world over have speculated about life after death, consciousness after death, is because it’s hard to come to grips with the prospect that maybe there’s nothing. And of course we don’t know. We don’t know the answer to it.
And I think what’s most important is that each of us finds a way to be comfortable with the story of what happened, because we do have to live. We do have to be joyful. We do have to be there for friends and loved ones and children and colleagues, and we responsibilities to our world, but we also have a responsibility to our self in the long run to experience all of the elements that life has to it, and part of doing that requires finding a way of being comfortable with the loss that we’ve experienced.
And everyone’s going to do that in a slightly different way, and everyone’s going to make decisions for themselves about some of those key questions like, “To what extent is there continued consciousness after the death of the body?” And you know, I think it’s a deeply personal thing, and in the end, I think psychologically more than anything else, it plays that function of helping to move forward.
And the fact is that in your life there’s going to be remarkable inconsistency in the beliefs that you have, you know. So even someone who believes “Well, you know death is just the death of a body and that’s it. That’s all there is,” will still spend the rest of their lives thinking about their loved ones and wondering about the reactions that they may have had to current situations in ways that make those people still feel very much alive.
Dr. Markman, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your time. Thank you very much for speaking with me.
Dr. Markman: It’s my pleasure. And good luck. As I say, it’s a process.
[End of interview]
That was the end of my conversation with Dr. Markman. I’d now like to read something that I read at my brother’s funeral. I don’t know who wrote this, but I found these words sometime last year and saved them, thinking that I’d need them some day. That day came much sooner than I expected.
“I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived so far and a lot of people that I’ve known and loved have not. I’ve lost friends, acquaintances, coworkers, grandparents, my mom, teachers, mentors, students, neighbor, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child, but here are my two cents.
I wish I could say you get used to people dying, but I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to stop mattering. I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love.
Scars are a testament to life. Scars a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply, and be cut or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. Scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life.
As for grief, you’ll find that it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning. With the wreckage all around you, everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage, and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float and stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come ten seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out, but in between you can breathe; you can function.
You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything, and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line — and it’s different for everybody — you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall, or 50 feet tall, and while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming — an anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will again come out the other side, soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging onto some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you’ll learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come, and you’ll survive them, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves and lots of shipwrecks.”
[End of audio]
This transcript is from an episode of the Myth vs. Craft podcast that originally aired on June 13, 2016.