An Open Letter to My Dead Brother, July 2019

Dearest Connor,

Formal, I know, but it’s time again. I hope you’re sitting because this is another long one. I miss you.

Occasionally I come across things that make me wonder if your spirit lives on, or if you’re trying to send me a message to let me know you’re okay.

I saw a license plate while driving home in the rain recently whose lettering reminded me of an inside joke we had about that dumb bully in our neighborhood growing up, the one who misspelled “rainbow”.

Or this week, when I found a flying beetle-y bug in my favorite section of my bedroom, and it didn’t fly away when I gestured toward it. I didn’t have the heart to kill it. What if it was you?

I wish I believed in reincarnation.

It is soothing to pretend your energy continues. And yet, I’m hurt at the thought of you being able to send concrete messages and choosing not to, so I choose to accept that you probably can’t. It’s easier than feeling rejected and ignored. Also… science?

I used to believe in an afterlife, back when I was an optimistic teenager. That time is a welcomed and distant fantasy. Your death forced me out of childhood and into the blunt realization that some things in life don’t have a positive aspect.

Remember my high school friend, Jacob, the one who sang show tunes? I think you met him once or twice. He was one of the surprise visitors in the week following your death. I knew he had struggled with clinical depression for much of his life. That afternoon, he shared with me that he’d had suicidal thoughts earlier in life but vowed to never kill himself, in recognizance of our family’s pain from your untimely demise. I thanked him for his profound gift, and we shared a deep, long, warm, tearful, soulful hug.

We’d grown somewhat apart before then and didn’t talk much that year, or at all after high school.

Three weeks ago, I learned of Jacob’s death.

Two weeks ago, I learned he probably killed himself.

One week ago, I had an emotional breakdown at work.

I stayed home for several days, sobbing and trying to rush-process the flood of feelings that ambushed me, following my return home from a family gathering for the Fourth of July.

I learned at that gathering that one of our beloved aunts was diagnosed with stage two colon cancer. She’s already had a successful surgery and is recovering beautifully, but what — the — actual — fuck. Isn’t our family small enough, as it is? We can’t afford to lose anyone else.

I was already resentful of many aspects of my day job and feeling trapped at work in a role I didn’t enjoy and that no longer brought me challenge or spurred interest. Jacob’s broken promise ignited in me a flurry of confusion and unearthed pain that left me mentally unable to attend to the pettiness of my typical workday.

When I finally returned to work two days later, between bouts of tearfulness, I asked my uppers for three weeks off to stay home and just think, effective immediately. They granted my request the next day.

“You won, pain…” I sighed.

“I’m listening. I’m here. Now what?”

As I sit here at the conclusion of my first week of sabbatical, devouring and digesting literature with an intensity I haven’t attempted since college, I’m reminded of the familiar ebb and flow of grief cycling. Most times I’m fine, but then the sadness creeps back into my life and smacks me across my face, restoring my dizzying confusion about where to go from here.

When I returned to school the week following your death, my math teacher pulled me aside and said, “time heals all wounds.” Back then, her words felt kind and insightful. Now, her words make me question her understanding of a loss of this magnitude. Lots of time has passed, yet my wounds remain permanent. Maybe she and I define “heal” differently. Or “wounds”. I don’t feel healed. I’ve just gotten better at ignoring the gaping holes in my heart until they scream for attention. My trigger-points waver in intensity between days and seasons.

I hate the euphemism, “passing away”.

I use it when I’m trying to spare someone else’s feelings or to be polite, but I’d rather people just call “dead” dead. “Passing” is a term of transition. Pass through, pass over, pass under, pass beside. Life doesn’t “pass” in death. It hasn’t simply moved; it ended. Ceased, gone, no more. Death deserves to be named as strongly as it strikes. To soften how we describe death trivializes the crushing pain of hideous, untimely loss.

I’ve put off therapy all this time because seventeen-year-old me thought, “How can talking to anyone other than Connor make this any less sad?”, and twenty-seven-year-old me continues to agree. Hypocritical, considering my career goals, I know, but I didn’t want to be a grief counselor anyway so mlelgthhh.

I read my first book on grief this week.

I lucked out picking a particularly brilliant book, too. The author’s frustration and honesty about her own grief resonated with me. Her words are raw and pointed. Nothing was sugar-coated, and it included guidance for not just the grievers but also their well-meaning but ill-equipped supporters. Though the book is geared toward people whose bereavement is fresh (within the first two years), its lessons are timeless. The author’s validation of suffering is comforting, calling attention to the randomness of life and death, and the overwhelmingly misguided, ignorant approach our culture takes to grief.

I now realize, with the help of that book, that my pain will last forever, and isn’t something to be overcome. Rather, I need to figure out how to make peace with its existence, while carrying it alongside me.

I also need to accept that there are answers I’ll never get from you, which is especially frustrating. There are so many things I’d like to ask you. I wish you’d left a note so that some of those questions could be answered — despite sparking countless others.

My existentially-oriented friends have periodically mentioned their personal struggles with pondering the meaning of life. I don’t need justification for being alive; I’d rather solve tangible problems. I’m perfectly content accepting that life happens and the universe forces us to exist. We’re here, that’s fine, can I go off and play now?

For me, the struggle is in the meaning of death.

We die because we’re organic; our internal processes stop. No more blood moving, no more breaths, no more sight or sound or thought. What’s left of the world then gets to choose what to do with the shell we leave behind and the impact we’ve made on other people’s lives. Why do I need meaning in that? Death is fact the same way that life is fact. Lights on, lights off.

I understand the logic. I understand the fact. So why am I frustrated?

I resent that I will spend the rest of my life gradually learning about the deaths of people I once cared about. Adulthood is hard, and harsh, but come on. That’s downright cruel. I’m not in a place where I can “just appreciate what I have”.

I feel angry, and guilty, and frustrated.

But I no longer feel trapped, so that’s a start.

The sabbatical is alleviating my feeling tethered to my office role and my bosses, reminding me that I have nothing to lose from walking away from this job if I want to. I have plenty of savings and could get another job right away if I felt like it, or could take nine months off, instead.

When my employer realized I was this desperate for time away, and that their delayed approval of that leave risked losing me as an employee, big changes happened fast. Like, fast fast. And there were huge initial changes made, with more to follow after I return — changes for which I’d already been waiting more than a year.

I resent that it took this dramatic of a catalyst to force those changes, and that my mental health had to be sacrificed to enact them, but I appreciate how efficiently the threat of my potential departure motivated them to restructure things.

I feel cheated that you left. I was cheated out of us getting to witness each other graduate from college, commit to life partners, have kids, retire, work together to process Mom’s and Dad’s eventual deaths, and so many other life experiences. And I feel cheated that my friends with younger siblings do get to share those experiences.

You weren’t supposed to die before me, before three of our four grandparents, or before my favorite parakeet.

You weren’t supposed to die before I graduated high school and you graduated middle school.

You weren’t supposed to know what suicide was, much less how to do it.

I’m not supposed to know what it’s like to have to call 9-1-1.

I wasn’t supposed to find your lifeless, bluing body lying face-down in your bed.

I’m not supposed to have vivid memories of the look and feel and sound of helplessly trying to resuscitate you. That fucking “death rattle” wheeze released from your throat as your chest exhaled my breath will haunt my shattered heart until the end of time.

I don’t regret not saying goodbye to your corpse in the hospital. Trying to revive you was more than enough trauma for one lifetime.

I wasn’t supposed to know what it was like to witness Mom and Dad crying every day before I left for school that year.

You weren’t supposed to know there was a life direction other than moving “forward”.

I wasn’t supposed to feel like I’d been punched in the gut when I read the corporate e-mail about my manager giving her then-newborn son your name. I’m not supposed to wince when she speaks his name, either. And I’m certainly not supposed to cringe when I hear of anyone else with your name.

You didn’t get to meet Dad’s space rocket (his Tesla, “Dragon”), or see The Incredibles 2 with me, or let me buy you nice things now that I have a big kid grown-up job to abhor and am living on my own. I’ll always have to imagine your presence instead. Spoiler alert: it’s a crappy substitute.

You frequently pointed out the unfairness of life, as you reached double-digit ages.

Well, this isn’t fair, either.

You respected the rules, order, and structure of the world, then all at once obliterated my world with a gargantuan choice you were too young to make.

Now, I’m left carrying the weight of your decision with me — forever.

I’m glad that most people will spend their lives not knowing the pain of an out-of-order death, but it’s isolating for me to have such a limited number of people who truly understand the unique trauma of a young sibling’s suicide.

I’m furious with each child who bullied you, and the ones who witnessed you being bullied and did nothing. But… can I really hold them accountable? I’m frustrated that I don’t feel I can be angry with them. They were children, with immature child-brains. We all were. We made stupid mistakes and kind-of knew better but didn’t, really. 

I’m sorry that I didn’t acknowledge you in the school hall that one time we passed each other. I didn’t think you wanted me to address you since we agreed not to associate on the school bus. I hope you still felt that way until the end. I hope you preferred the silence over being associated with your “bratty” big sister.

I don’t remember on the bus if I ever saw that girl who used to push your head up against the window glass, or that boy who used to throw nails at you, tormenting you, but I hope to gods-I-don’t-believe-in that I never did, because having witnessed that and doing nothing to help you is more guilt than I can manage in my lifetime. I can’t remember. A lot is blurry from back then, but I’ll always have the guilt of feeling like there was something I should have done differently to support you — and failed.

I remember you being angry with me for losing interest in our relationship at home in my middle-teenage years. I don’t know if you still felt that way when you died, but I hope not. That interest would have resumed after I entered adulthood. I would trade just about anything to restore a relationship with you now.

I miss the joy of our summers as kids, playing together all day in the living room, computer room, and driveway, and alternating sleepovers in each others’ bedrooms at night, staying up later than we were supposed to, trading stories and giggling. I’m so sorry for the times I intentionally got you in trouble or hurt you. I hope I didn’t warp your view of the world too badly.

I’m sorry the world is cruel to clever, eccentric, awkward kids.

I wish you’d told us what you were going through. Mom and Dad would have intervened. They would have thought of something.

I searched through every scrap of paper in your backpack twice — once soon after you died, and once within the past few years. I melt when I see your handwriting. I miss that mess.

I saved some of the fake currency you invented with your name written on it, to preserve an artifact of your ownership of your name and of our childhood in-home economy. It was so uniquely you.

I wish you’d left an explanation, any glimpse into your mindset that afternoon. But that would have required planning, and I think you acted on a frustrated impulse.

Maybe I’ll go to one of those suicide prevention awareness walks someday. Definitely no time soon, though. I used to think that when I could envision attending one without sobbing, I’d know I had successfully finished grieving. But that’s bullshit; grieving is a lifelong process (bless that insightful book).

Mourning-wise, I’m in a perpetual hamster wheel of progress; several weeks of spinning forward, one surprise loop backward to knock me off my feet, then I get back up and start the forward spins again. This week it was three days forward. Usually, it’s much further, but then when I do get knocked backward after being forward for such a long time, that’s also a greater magnitude.

Shoutout to our recurring guest star holidays that knock me flat on my behind:

  • your birthday,
  • your deathday, and
  • Christmas.

Honorable mention awards go to:

  • the entire fall season,
  • the start of the public school year,
  • Pi Day,
  • my birthday,
  • Mom’s and Dad’s birthdays,
  • all family gatherings,
  • any visits to amusement parks, and
  • anytime I see Hebrew International hotdogs, Easy Mac, Sprite, or blue raspberry-flavored anything.

I wrote this letter a few days ago, when my chest felt heavy and sunken, and my cheeks were stained with tears. I would never have guessed all those years ago before you left that processing your random death would be this hard or hurt for this long. Life is full of fucked-up little mysteries, and I know you’d enjoy me being wrong. Relish your victory, buddy.

Writing to you has always brought me glimpses of stillness and understanding, pretending we still have some semblance of a connection in this universe. It feels nice to reignite this old channel. Thanks for listening.

It’s your turn to write first, next time.

Love, C

P.S. – Look at this rainbow pineapple painting I found yesterday. Isn’t it ridiculous? So whimsical. I grin childishly (you know… those really, really, really big grins) each time I glance at it. It’s going on my bedroom wall.

0720190934a~2

To the outside world: if any of my letters to Connor make you cry, feel free to let me know. It’s oddly comforting.

Also, the book I referenced is It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine, and it’s flippin’ fantastic. Go read it.

———————–

2 comments

  1. Hey. I’m glad you have found a little bit of help with the grief book. I’m glad you got to have some time off from work.

    best wishes.

    [And though you don’t need it, I’m sorry your wounds are still so raw, though it isn’t surprising, cos an awful thing happened, and that will never change, even as you get stronger and time goes on. I hope you allow yourself to try some counselling at some point. Having a real person with understanding and information to help you see more different angles, can give you permission to feel differently, even if that’s hard to imagine. ]

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for your kind wishes. I really appreciate your support! I’m so grateful to have found that book, as well as to have been granted the time off from work to read and re-read it, and chew on its valuable, insightful advice. I reconsider my thoughts on counseling every so often. Maybe someday.

      Like

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