I heard my voice but it was like I wasn’t there: “If he dies, I’ll die… I won’t survive it”. Then another voice came crashing in, “No, you wont die. It wont be easy, but you won’t die” it was the voice of my best friend, gently reminding me of the cruelties of life. I wasn’t saying I would die if my brother died for dramatics; I actually believed it. My best friend, Kate, was never one to placate; she always shot me straight and called me on my
shit and she also knew how to keep me grounded and rational. She had lost her mother five years earlier, so her words hit me like a freight train because I knew that she knew. She knew I wasn’t going to die, and that scared the crap out of me. I didn’t want to live in a world without my brother; I didn’t know a world without my brother. Wrapping my mind around the thought was futile and by that point I had stopped trying, which led to the words “I’ll die”. There just didn’t seem to be any other option.
My memory of this conversation is vivid: I know exactly where I was standing, I know what the weather was like, I can still smell the cigarette smoke of the people taking smoke breaks outside the hospital and hear the traffic on the streets of Baltimore. Much of my memory during this time is blurry, and I don’t mean blurry in the sense that I can’t remember things. I mean that there is literally a haze over each memory that I go back to in my mind during that time. It’s like I’m looking at my past through a thick fog or a set of binoculars that are out of focus.
The reason I wanted to write about this particular experience is because I want to discuss normalizing our responses to loss. Even if you haven’t experienced something similar to this, you’ve probably had a response to your loss that you’ve questioned at some point. Why didn’t I cry? Why didn’t I ask more questions? Why did it take me years to get around to grieving? Why did I push everyone away? Why have I forgotten so many significant parts of this loss? Why wasn’t I stronger for my family? Looking back on my own experience, it’s hard for me to believe I actually thought I’d die; but I did and I’ve come to a place of understanding and compassion with this.
What I want to make clear is that we all respond to losses differently. Our grief is as individual as our fingerprint, maybe even more so if that’s possible. Some people immediately feel the loss: they scream, they cry and curse. Others go into shock: they laugh, they deny, they go silently into themselves. There is a great example of this from one of my favorite television shows ‘This Is Us’- *spoiler alert* – Rebecca the mother of the family, has taken her husband to the hospital to get checked out after a house fire. She leaves the room to get them something to eat from the vending machine. When she leaves, her husband is fine. Then you hear hear the husband crashing, with nurses and doctors running into the room. The doctor comes to Rebecca at the vending machine and tells her that her husband died while she was out of the room. Standing there candy bar in hand, she tells the doctor he’s crazy; that he’s made a mistake. Then takes a huge bite of the candy bar. Later in the show, she discusses that reaction with her son, how it “haunts her”. How it’s one of the first things she thinks about when she thinks about the night she lost her husband. Obviously, this isn’t real life- it’s a television show but it describes the shock of loss so realistically.
All of us will have reactions that don’t seem “normal” but let’s be honest: with grief there is no normal. We’re all just winging it and hoping for the best. The idea that our grief will only be composed of “expected” emotions and responses is unrealistic. If we can all begin to come from a place of compassion, with an understanding that grief won’t be wrapped up in a pretty package, it will be easier to cope with our own grief and support others in theirs. It becomes an open forum with no structured idea that we’re all supposed to adhere to in the middle of a crisis. So together, let’s all throw away our outdated ideas about grief, let’s approach loss/grief with an open mind and an open heart. Let’s begin with an understanding and compassion towards ourselves and others that there is no normal when it comes to loss or grief. Taking it as it comes, one day at a time, because sometimes that’s the best we can do and that’s ok.