This is an excerpt from Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief, which is available

Chapter 3: Be Brave

Early Friday morning when I saw Kevin’s number on my phone, I said another silent prayer before I picked up his call. “Tell me some good news,” I said.

“Sue, it’s not good.”

I wanted to slap my hands over my ears and scream, “Please stop talking.”

“Setiawan left the hospital, and the doctor called her and told her to come back. His blood pressure dropped, and he wasn’t breathing on his own,” Kevin said. “They got his blood pressure under control, but he’s still on a breathing tube.”

“What?” I said. “What is going on?” I asked, panicked.

“I don’t know.”

After I hung up with Kevin, Setiawan emailed us with what she thought was good news. Our brother had been moved to the ICU. With her limited understanding, she believed it was a positive indicator because they moved him from the psychiatric ward to the ICU. I swallowed and called Kevin. “Good news?!” I yelled into the phone. “Are you kidding me? ICU is not an upgrade.”

“I know,” Kevin said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but Jessica said this doesn’t sound like withdrawals.”

It was as if an invisible hand ran the tip of an icicle down my back. “No,” I said. “It doesn’t. I really think I have to fly out there, Kev.”

“Let’s just wait to see how he’s doing today.”

It would take me over twenty hours to get to my brother if all flights stayed on schedule, which was unlikely given the back-to-back snowstorms. “OK,” I said. “I’ll give it a little more time. Call me the second you hear anything.”

I checked my emails and texts incessantly for updates. The next three hours morphed into a stick of dynamite as I watched the wick burn, curling into itself, waiting for the explosion. Tick tock. Tick tock. When I couldn’t stand the silence for a second longer, I called Kevin at 3:00 p.m. He had just spoken to Setiawan. The doctor had called her and told her his condition was critical. She took a cab back to the hospital and was able to see Rocky through the glass of the ICU. It was 3:00 in the morning in Hong Kong. Setiawan had to leave the hospital and bring Anna back to the hotel room and put her to bed; they both needed rest.

While Kevin and I were talking, he received an incoming call. “Hey, it’s Setiawan. I’ll call you right back.”

I sat silent and still until my phone buzzed. “What is going on?”

“That was the doctor,” Kevin said. “He asked her to go back to the hospital. His blood pressure has fallen again.”

“What does that mean? They brought it up before.” He didn’t need to answer me because the deepest part of my soul whispered, He’s not going to make it. I shook my head. No. No. He will make it. He will.

“I don’t know, Sue.”

“Do you think we could lose him?” I asked. My brother? Leave? No. My bigger-than-life brother with a hug that could melt a glacier and smile that could light up a midnight sky? The brother who received an award for being one the most influential spa leaders in Asia? The fearless brother who lived his life with zest and gusto?

“The thought has occurred to me,” Kevin said.

“Kevin, I have to call Dad and let him know Rocky has taken a turn. I’ll call you back. I love you.”

“Love you too, Sis.”

When he said that, it was Rocky’s voice I heard. I questioned whether or not I should call my father. I didn’t want to worry him, but my inner thoughts chanted, He could die. His blood pressure dropped. It’s all part of the withdrawals. He’s going to be fine. Stop overreacting.

I leaned over the kitchen sink and dry-heaved, as I slapped my hand against the porcelain until my palm reddened and swelled. It wasn’t possible that this nightmare was happening to our family. We’d been through enough. My parents had been through enough.

I punched my parents’ number into my phone. “Hey, Dad,” I said.

“Any updates?” he asked.

“He’s taken a turn, Dad,” I said as my voice cracked. “He can’t breathe on his own. It’s not good.”

My father remained silent until he let out some semblance of, “Oh, no.”

“It’s going to be OK, Dad,” I said. “It has to be, right?” I don’t remember what he said. It was brief, and I said I’d call him as soon as I heard from Setiawan. At 4:00 p.m., I texted Setiawan and asked her, What is going on?

Seconds later, my cell phone rang, and hell found me. “You have to be brave, Sue. Brian is gone.”

A small voice rose up from inside of me. “Brian? What? Gone where?” Maybe she means someone else. We never called my brother by his birth name. No. Rocky was fine.

“He’s free, Sue,” Setiawan cried into the phone. “He’s free. He’s not in any more pain.”

I closed my eyes and could see and feel her standing in a crowded hallway inside the hospital as her own shock held her body like a netted fish while pure, unrefined grief waited its turn, ready with outstretched claws to sink into skin and bone when shock released her.

“I don’t understand,” I said. My body trembled as I fell on hands and knees, asking the same futile question over and over again, Why?

“I have to go, Sue,” Setiawan said. “I have to call my family.”

I held the phone in my hand as it turned into a hand grenade. It was February 14, a day for lovers, a day when hearts were doled out in abundance. I stared at the phone, held my breath, knowing my news would blow up my family’s valentine hearts into tiny pieces. Who do I call first? I rehearsed what I’d say to my father, but the words crowded in the back of my throat.

I coughed and dry-heaved again. Then there was my brother Paul, thirteen months older than me. He didn’t even know Rocky was in the hospital. I never called him the night we all jumped on a conference call because I thought Rocky was going through normal withdrawals and would be discharged in a couple of days. I called my other two brothers because I want- ed their wives to help with logistics. Jessica, the doctor, could call the hospital and Gayle, given her line of work for the state, could call the American Embassy. Setiawan had only reached out to Kevin. It was a massive oversight and one I would live to regret.

What I prayed for, begged for, before pressing numbers on the keypad, was “Please, please, God, don’t let this kill my parents or trigger another stroke.” As I made the first call to my father, I had one lucid thought: I’d rather be walking through flames than calling my parents and telling them their fourth-born child was dead. After I made the calls, one by one to my father, then to my brothers, and finally to my husband, I sank to the floor, my body trembling in a way I didn’t know was possible.

susan casey

Susan E. Casey, MSW, MFA, is an author, a licensed mental health clinician, a certified bereavement group facilitator, and a certified life coach. Throughout the past 25 years, Susan has worked in hospice, in-patient, and home-based settings with teens and adults, and taught numerous courses to executive leaders and clinicians. Currently, Susan works for a measurement-based care organization, providing clinical coaching to therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists countrywide to improve mental health outcomes for youth and adults. Susan’s blog on her website,, chronicles her grieving process following the death of her younger brother. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including first place in the PEN/Nob Hill Literary Contest and Green Writer’s National Literary Contest. Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Grief is her first work of nonfiction published on February 14, 2020 by Library Tales Publishing. Both Susan’s professional and creative work have been guided by her deep belief that every individual has purpose and inherent strengths and deserves the opportunity to reach their own unique potential. Susan lives in Maine with her husband Steve and golden retriever Indy.

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