Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Understanding sibling loss

I swear I never intended this blog to be a dissertation on grief. In fact, when I look back on the first 8-9 months worth of posts, most are lighthearted or thoughtful pieces about life in general. But in many ways, this blog has been a reflection of my present moment and there have been alot of entries that have helped me navigate, process and walk through this thing called my life. I have had moments of vulnerability, anger and peace through the process. But the most rewarding part has been the feedback I have gotten from others; sincere thank you's that I have at times given a voice to what so many of us feel but can't say outloud. That is why I continue to do it.

So when I got the phone call this weekend from my youngest sister telling me that a family friend had passed away suddenly, at 46, I found myself living the surreal life. Bill was one of 7 siblings to our 6. Our families have been intertwined for as long as I can remember. There are multiple entanglements between our families starting back when we were all very young. They were the Hatfields to our McCoys. I know no other way to explain it. We all grew up in Chadds Ford. Old time, middle class Chadds Ford to working class parents. We both lost our fathers very young and it changed who we were as individuals and families. We loved and fought fiercely with our siblings; much to our mothers despair. After their mother fell ill with cancer, my mother felt a deep responsibility towards "those children" (though they were not actual children), many of whom she barely knew. I think we all knew, on some level, we were stuck with each other. Whether we liked it or not.

I will be honest. I did not know Bill well. But I have had long term relationships with 3 of his siblings. Bill was at my brother's funeral. He was at my mother's funeral. He loved my family. He loved his family. And that's really all I needed to know.

So in the chaos of Sunday afternoon, I stood and watched a family in grief. A grief that I truly understood. Because I had been there. I can remember feeling so incredibly alone in my grief for my brother. Because I knew no one who had gone through what I had been through. And here I was standing there, knowing exactly the depth of pain they were feeling. And that was hard to watch. Because I know how alone they feel. And I know the only way out is through it.

I have had a deep desire to physically remove the pain from each of them. As if there is something; anything I can do to take away one ounce of the hurt. There is nothing I can do. Other than tell them what I have learned in the process of losing my own brother. And this is what I learned.

-Let go of the guilt. We do not live our lives believing we will die. We live believing we will live so we say and do everything from that place. And it's okay. That's what makes life real and full.

-Know that you have done and said enough. Because you have. For every fight you had, you had another moment of laughter and joy. You did crazy shit. You have stories. He has a legacy.

-Laugh sooner rather than later. It is so easy to feel like a single moment of joy is a betrayal in the early days of your grief. But laughing is part of the grief. It's the good part.

-The loss of a sibling is one of the hardest you will ever endure. You know each others histories in a way your parents, children and spouses will never know. It is probably the most sacred of all of the relationships you will ever have. Remember that, and you will forgive yourself for feeling a pain that society doesn't really acknowledge.

-Grieve. Don't let anyone tell you when you should be done. This is probably the single most important lesson I have learned and I still struggle with it every day.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A couple of glasses of wine later...

I woke up in a foul mood. I'll admit, I've been in a foul mood for weeks, possibly months. I try to pretend I'm not but for the most part, I am. I have struggled through this thing called grief for over 2 years now; most recently one layered over the other. It has been hard. It has sucked. Some days getting out of bed is a victory in itself. I am tired. I am tired of pretending (and not doing a very good job of it) that I'm not tired. Because I have a right to be tired.

I've done so much self evaluation that I'm not sure how much more I can do without throwing up all of this information on the universe. Because "journaling" in the purest sense does not work for me. Because I journal in my head all of the time. It's my cross to bear. And that makes people uncomfortable. People don't like people who are in tune with their feelings. People really don't like people who are willing to talk about those feelings. And that kinda sucks. I have really figured out who my real friends are in the last few years. I've been surprised and disappointed. I've had to accept some people where they are at in life and have walked away from others. It's been hard.

I evolved into blogging about 6 months after my brother died and it pulled me through a very dark, dark period in my life. I compare the loss of a sibling to an amputation. I literally lost a part of myself, and I did not know how I would ever survive that. Ralph and I weren't soulmates. We were siblings. He was one of the "six kids" I referred to when people asked me how many siblings I had. Do you know what an awkward conversation that is to have once one of you has died? I assure you, its awkward. And while I don't wish that on anyone, you can not and will not understand that until you have been there. And pretending that you can is an insult. I don't want you to understand. I want you to be able to sit with it. And not run away. Or dismiss. Or compartmentalize. Because, I don't have the luxury of doing any of those things.

Those closest to me know how much the experience of losing my brother changed me. And I personally feel that it changed me for the better. I became much more comfortable in my own skin, much less concerned with what others thought and much more of who I was meant to be. And not everyone liked me but I could have cared less. My goal in life is not to have everyone like me. My goal in life is to be authentic, real, truthful and happy. And I was happy. Until my mother got sick. And then she died.

Losing my mother would have been devastating enough but it was layered on the fragile new person I had recently become. Someone I was still coming to terms with; a person who had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. The morning of my 40th birthday I stood up to a group of entitled 18 year old college freshman who collectively argued with me about whether or not they should have to take a test the morning after the Super Bowl. I walked out of the classroom, got in my car and my phone rang. I answered it and listened as my mother sang "Happy Birthday" to me for the last time. I knew in that moment that she would never do that again and I almost lost my mind. I struggled through nearly 60 more days until she took her last breath. I went to work, I taught a class, I was a mother to my child. All while I knew my mother was dying. I don't think I am exceptional for that. I'm just willing to point out the exceptional nature of the process. Because those of you who have been there know how incredibly hard that is, and those of you who have not need to know that it is one of the hardest things you will ever do.

I am 6 months out of my mother's death. That is not very long. I have to remind myself of that on an almost daily basis. At 6 months after my brother's death, I peaked and could have very well inflicted bodily harm on a few select people in my life. 6 months is a drop in the bucket when you've talked to someone nearly daily for 40 years. And I'll admit, I am angry that there is a social expectation that I should be over it, or at the very least have the ability to compartmentalize it. Because I'm not and I can't. So screw all of you that think I'm being dramatic. Because I have spent the last 3 months feeling bad about feeling bad. The very thing that sustained me and empowered me and freed me from the grief and pain of losing my brother, which was talking about it, and writing about it, is the very thing I have felt unable to do in the last three months. I don't blame anyone for that. I think given the nature of what I've been through in the last 2 years, I have spent alot of time wondering what is socially acceptable in terms of my grief. Alot of what I learned about myself when I lost my brother was kicked to the curb in the process of coming to terms with losing my mother. I'm guessing I was this fragile and unsure of myself at this point in the process of losing my brother but its like taking 10 steps back and starting all over again. And I need to start over. And talk about it. And write about it. And not care what anyone thinks. And cling to those who are willing to sit with the pain. And not run away. Or dismiss. Or expect me to compartmentalize.

I know there are plenty of you who have been here and don't talk about it. And I don't blame you or expect that you can do this. But don't expect me not to. I don't think I'm more evolved. If anything, I worry that I'm stuck. But I know deep down that the only way for me to get through this, is to go through this. I think it has cost me friendships. But then I think what it has really done is show me who my real friends are. I have been blessed with incredible friends through this process. And as my family has in many respects fallen apart, those friendships have become the single most important part of the healing process. So if you are my friend, just stay there. You don't have to do anything spectacular. You just need to sit with me while I sit in the pain. Somedays are better than others. Just don't run away.