One sleepless night, I tiptoed down the stairs, slipped outside and stared up at the low-hanging moon, so close to me it looked as if it had been pinned against the black canvas with a thumb tack.
I reached out a hand to snatch if from the sky, tuck it inside my heart, feel its warm steady glow burn through my body, filling the empty places my brother’s death left behind. Perhaps I’d be able float, or fly into the midnight sky, join him there in the crook of a star, swing our legs and whisper all that he gave to me in his short life. How he inspired me. Expanded me. I’d tell him my favorite parts about being his sister and the infinite ways he changed my life and is changing it still.
I’d tell him how he taught me about love by giving me the gift to love and lose him in this lifetime.
Love, the lightest and heaviest four-letter word that keeps artists sweating and panting as they attempt to capture this elusive emotion in words, in brush strokes, in haunting notes strummed on an acoustic guitar.
To open the chambers of our hearts to real intimate love—love for our children, our parents, our best friends, our lovers and our siblings requires courage. The courage to be vulnerable. The courage to allow another human being to tread into our shadow side, that sacred, secret space where our fears, our hurts, our unrealized dreams curl up and cower. Many of us let our loved ones halfway in, or three quarters of the way in, but protect the lady-slipper fragile parts that belong only to us. The last quarter of who we are as reassurance we’ll remain whole and standing and alive when we inevitably lose someone we love.
At least this is the way I lived my life, I just wasn’t aware of it until my brother Rocky died. Grief lit up those dark protected corners like someone shot a flare through my heart.
Those fears, past hurts, unrealized dreams surrendered with their hands in the air. There was no more hiding. There was only me and my cracked-open heart, gazing bleary-eyed at the pieces of me I’d shooed into the shadows, said, “Keep quiet. I will keep you safe.”
Three months after Rocky died, after my travels to Asia, after watching his ashes glint under the Balinese sun and drift away from me and his beloved wife and daughter and brother, after the memorial service in the states, after there was nothing left to distract me, nothing left to keep my mind from re-living that nanosecond when my life blew apart as if I’d swallowed a hand grenade, I offered up a gift to my brother. I offered up a gift to me: to allow myself to dive into the deep river of grief.
I was terrified I’d drift away to some remote semblance of myself, but I was sure if I wanted to arrive somewhere new, it was necessary. I’ve known my sibling for forty three years. I remember when my parents brought him home swaddled in a blanket. I want to feel the loss. I want to because it honors what we had. It honors the sister-brother bond we shared. It honors the love we had between us. It honors my brother’s spirit.
Moving through grief is a choice. I’m not talking about the aftershock, or the endless days, clutching photographs to our chest or breathing in the scent of our loved ones clothes or the desperate dire need to join them on the other side. I’m not talking about remaining stuck in the stages of grief. I’m talking about being present in the process, moving with it and through it so we can rejoin the living and hear the sound of our own laughter. Real laughter. Guttural laughter.
I’m talking about giving ourselves the space, the time to feel into the murky depths of our grief without the numerous assistants eager to numb the edges of our emotional discomfort: valium, anti-depressants (when it’s grief, not depression), street drugs, alcohol and busyness.
Why is it we want to numb our pain? Where do we think it goes when we don’t allow ourselves to feel it, breathe into it? I’ve witnessed it over and over as a therapist, the “assistants” and “distractions” that keep us from feeling love and losses fully. We would not know one without the other.
Only a few months into my own grieving process my doctor wanted to put me on anti-depressants. I said, “But I’m not depressed.”
He said, “Well it’s situational depression.”
I said, “No. It’s grief.”
We don’t, as a culture, want to feel the depth of emotion that sears through the heart like a fire through a parched field. We want to slap some salve on the rising blisters, cool the hot, raging ache. But those blisters need to rise. They need to pop, scab over, and scar. I don’t believe we ever “heal” from profound loss or that grieving has an end point. Overtime, our grief transforms into something new. Something different when we allow ourselves to feel our way all the way through it.
And even if it’s not our pain, but that of a friend, a loved one, it’s no easier. A human being in suffering bleeds an energy that is thick, and palpable. It cups its mouth over yours and siphons your breath. We don’t want to suffer and we don’t want others, too either. It hurts because we, me, you are powerless to transform those blisters into scabs.
As I stood motionless that night, just as my brother had done in a photograph where he and his two college pals tilted heads toward the sky, mesmerized by stars or the moon, maybe both, I thought about how that picture captured his spirit, the way he lived his life one moment at a time, immersed in the wonder of it all.
My brother taught me about love, about loss. He showed me there’s beauty in both. My blisters are not scars yet, I’m not even sure they’ve scabbed over, but I welcome them because the beauty in the pain is that I had the chance to love him in this lifetime. And that I’d choose over and over and over again.