It has been a just over a month since my world was forever changed. On November 9, I found out that my 28 year-old brother, Mark, had passed away suddenly and tragically.
About a month before that my friend Amanda died after 7 years of treatment for her metastatic breast cancer and a prolonged time on hospice care. When Amanda passed away, I was sad, and I missed her, and I was broken-hearted for her husband and her sons, but it was hardly a surprise. I had been visiting as often as I could through her last months and I saw her withering away. The last time that I went to see her, I held her hand, I got a brief moment of clarity from her drug-induced haze when she looked right at me and told me she loved me and I was able to say the same to her.
On the drive home I sobbed and I prayed that she would let go, that she would be released from her unimaginable suffering and finally be at peace. When I got the news of her death, I was in the middle of writing an angry rant that I will probably post eventually, but I stopped and cried for a while. I had been actively preparing for her death with my therapist (as much as you can prepare.) Every time I saw or spoke to her I knew that it might be the last time and I always ended our visits with that in mind.
I first met Amanda 3 years ago when we were both in the infusion room getting treatment. I was happy to have her as a friend, and to be able to provide free childcare for her through Mommies In Need. Three days after her death, a fantastic group called Resounding Harmony was doing a benefit concert for Mommies In Need and we decided to dedicate a song to her and to light candles in her honor. I was the one who was going to deliver her tribute. At the dress rehearsal I was a mess. I barely got out the words I had written for her memorial and then I sobbed through the whole song.
But the next day for the show, I called upon every bit of strength that I had and I was able to speak for her in a way that I will always be proud of. I had no idea that event was a sort of dress rehearsal of it’s own.
When Amanda died I thought I knew what sad was. It turns out I had no idea.
I now know that there is a level of grief that is so deep it physically hurts. I know what it is to be shocked with news that knocks the breath out of your lungs. I know what it is to fall to the ground crying because you cannot keep yourself upright. I know the panic that comes when you feel that if you allow yourself to start crying you will never be able to stop.
When my brother died, my parents were extremely smart about how they told me. They called my husband and had him come home to be with me as I heard the news. When he said he was getting out of work early, I didn’t think anything of it at first. But when he got home, he guided me to the couch and he said he had something to tell me.
At that point I got this strange tunnel vision- I knew what he was about to say would be bad and my mind was racing as to what it would be. My first thought was that one of my grandparents had passed, but I had talked to them earlier that day, so that didn’t make sense.
When he said, “Mark is dead,” I did not understand the words that were coming out of his mouth. I went into a sort of shock in which I laughed and said “No, that’s not true.” He had to tell me five or six times until I could put it together in my head.
It’s funny how some memories are so blurry and others so clear. I don’t think I will ever forget how that felt as I began to comprehend that my baby brother, the sweet little boy nine years younger than me, whose diapers I had changed, who I read all the Harry Potter books out loud to, who is a part of most of my best family memories, was no longer on this earth.
I don’t think I have fully accepted that I will never see him again in this life. That still feels too big to even start to process.
The details of the days that follow are more complicated and personal than I can even begin to share here. I will say that I am forever grateful that my other two siblings and I live in Dallas and that we are all married to exceptional people who helped us get through the worst of it. We were all able to be together at my parents’ house as we stumbled through that first day. Grieving with people doesn’t make it any less painful, but it does make it a little less heavy. My family and I helped carry each other through the moments when none of us would have been strong enough to get through it alone.
As funny as it sounds, I have a lot to be grateful for from that period. Grateful that my family could be together. That I have two amazing and hilarious 5 year-olds that I can snuggle all the time. That a friend of mine is married to a funeral director so I had someone to call in those first hours to help us stumble through the practical things you have to do when someone dies unexpectedly. That I have a pastor and a church community who were present when I needed them. That one of my dad’s best friends heard the news and put together a celebration of Mark’s life just three days after we found out he was gone. That a wonderful musician and family friend was in town and sang in Mark’s honor. And that I had that dress rehearsal.
As we talked about what we would do and say to honor Mark, I volunteered to speak for him. When my parents asked if I was sure that I could do it, I said yes. I had gotten through my tribute for Amanda and I knew that it would be a thousand times harder but that I could also do it for my brother.
And I did. I read a beautiful message from my father, a poem my mother selected, and wove stories that my parents and siblings contributed into a speech that I think was just right for him. We ended it with a toast and a shot of Jack Daniels because that felt like something he would have thought was pretty badass.
I held myself together through the whole thing and then had the blessing of that beautiful song in which I let it go. I cried and was held by my loving family as we continued to share that grief.
So how am I now? Well, it depends on when you talk to me.
For a few weeks after we lost Mark, I went into a hole and pretty much didn’t talk to anyone except my immediate family. My friends texted and called and emailed but I couldn’t face talking to anyone. I have slowly started to join the world again, so there’s progress.
Sometimes I am pretty good. I am back at work. I couldn’t get myself motivated to start up again for a long time. But then Mommies In Need got applications from two new families desperately in need of help. I couldn’t get it together to do admin work or fundraising, but being able to help someone else going through a terrible time in their life made me feel just a little bit better.
Sometimes I am a good wife and parent. I can pick up my kids from school and play with them and talk to my husband about all the stuff we have going on in life. My patience is pretty limited though. I get irritated easily, I snap more than I would like, and I haven’t cooked an actual meal that I can remember (not that I am normally much of a chef, but right now even boiling water is sometimes too daunting a task.)
But then there are the times that I am so sad. So deeply sad that I can’t function. Or when I feel like a zombie just going through the motions. When I walk around a store for an hour and then leave without even buying anything because I am not actually seeing the store, I am just keeping my body busy while my mind checks out.
I am going to the holiday parties, and I manage it pretty well when I am around people I know and can be honest with. But I just can’t with idle chit-chat. I found myself at one party just sneaking off to a corner with an XL glass of wine because I couldn’t face anyone.
I will tell you one thing I know for certain. I will get through this. I am a Survivor after all. I get into dangerous territory when I spend too much time thinking about how much I have been through in the last six years and wondering how any one human being can be expected to cope with the constant blows I have been dealt.
But then I stop (maybe take a Xanax) and breathe. Another thing I am grateful for is that all the shit I have been through has taught me how to manage the worst moments in life. I have learned that you have two choices- curl up in a ball and die or keep going. I will always choose to keep going.
And that looks different depending on where I am. Sometimes I take it one day at a time, or one step or a time, or one tiptoe at a time, or one prayer at a time. And when it is really bad, when the sadness threatens to envelop me or I feel myself coming to the cliff’s edge of an anxiety attack, I get through one breath at a time. Take one breath and then another and keep moving forward. If I can remember to do that, I know that even this I will survive.