The Grief Journey

Michael aged 20 – a siblings story

October 12th, a day that lives in my head and will do until the day I die. Sometimes it’s there as a distant memory, something that’s in the back of my head, and occasionally a moment comes to the surface, and I can push it away. Other times it’s like living it again, but I don’t remember its entirety, instead, I relive snapshots. Stepping out of the shower to see my mum walking down the driveway, my uncle on one side and a policewoman on the other. Her leading me down the stairs to deliver the 8 words that shattered my world “Michael died in a car crash this morning.”, the screaming that I think was mine. The desperate hope that it wouldn’t be him, and the crushing recognition of his body at the morgue.


For the most part, as a child, you live blissfully unaware of death until your elderly relatives pass, or your pet dies. Death feels like it’s for old people, it follows a natural course and comes when you’ve lived your life and you’re ready to go. That’s how I was, of course, I knew that people could die young, but I hadn’t seen it personally, other than a second cousin’s funeral, and at age 7, 30-something was old.


I wasn’t necessarily sheltered, I was comfortable with death, and I’d been to my fair share of funerals, I’d helped with my grandparents’ makeup for theirs, held their hands, and kissed them goodbye. There’s just something so jarring about the face in the coffin being so smooth, not a wrinkle to be seen, a full head of hair, and a slight bit of peach fuzz on the chin.


I’d never felt such a sense of desperation in my life before as I did looking into my brother’s coffin.

I knew it was my grandparents’ time to go, I wanted them back, of course, but there was a sense of relief that there wouldn’t be anymore suffering. My grandma wouldn’t struggle with her breathing, coughing so hideously that sometimes it seemed like her lungs would come up, my grandpa wouldn’t be stuck inside his head, full of anger about forgetting so much, losing himself. But staring down at my 20-year-old brother’s face, I felt nothing but desperation, despair, and an agony that can’t even be put into words. My brother should’ve had so many years left, he had so much to do – fall truly, deeply, in love for the first time, figure out his passions, become the father that he never had. My brother dreamed of developing an app to help people with mental health struggles who had nowhere else to turn, he had a speech that he was supposed to be giving in parliament only days after his death. And none of it did – or will – ever come to fruition.


I grieved so deeply for his lost future, as well as the one I was supposed to share with him. He was supposed to be my lifelong best friend, the one person who knew how I grew up, who shared the joys and the traumas of our childhood, the families we were supposed to raise alongside each other, and as morbid as it is, the one who would help me bury the rest of our family. I had to grapple with the fact that aside from my mum, I was alone. I had my friends, of course, my aunts and uncles, but there’s a feeling of being left behind, looking toward a future that suddenly seemed devoid of so many joys.


After his death, there was a sense of being forgotten. My mum and my family knew the pain of losing a sibling having been through it themselves, but so many people focus on the pain that my mum felt, understandably – the loss of a child is undoubtedly one of the most agonizing feelings that a person could experience. But for a sibling, the loss is still agonizing and profound beyond articulation. There’s so many layers to it, losing a best friend and a life partner, but there’s a sense of anxiety that comes with it as a younger sibling, a fear that you’re next. I was 16 when my brother died, and he was 20. And for years I’ve been dreading my 20th birthday because I worry that it may be my last, that I might be driving to work one day and never make it there, just like my brother. I’ve also struggled to come to terms with the fact that one day I will be older than my big brother. I know the exact age my brother was the day he died, and I know the exact date that I will be older than him and it’s a day that I wish would never come. There was never a moment in my life where I thought I could be older than him, and it absolutely crushes me that one day I will outlive him.


Though siblings fight like cat and dog at the best of times, there’s a sense of camaraderie, and a want to protect each other, most siblings would fight to the death for each other, and my brother and I were like that. When he died, I felt like I should have been able to do something, I should have been able to protect him somehow, save him. I wanted desperately to take his place so he could live out his dreams, have the life he was working so hard to achieve. But now I don’t think I could put him through the agony I’ve experienced from his loss, being left behind sometimes seems worse than dying.

I think the person that felt that the most was my mum. I grieved so intensely for her. She devoted herself to us kids entirely, and my brother was her miracle baby – the child she was told she’d never have, and the one she nearly lost so many times, from the moment he was born 7 weeks premature, to the day the universe finally stole him from her.


My mum is truly the most resilient person I know. She learned to pick herself up and carry on at age 7, when her brother died, and again at 9, when her second brother died and my grandparents ran away from the grief, travelling the world and leaving her behind.


Despite all this, she’s been a beacon of light, with a never-ending positivity, and the ability to grow and recover from anything that life throws at her. But the pain I saw in her eyes as she broke the news to me, knowing that it had to come from her was nothing I’d ever seen before, and I hope I never see it again. Somehow, she forged on, she identified his body at the morgue and picked out his clothes, she organized his funeral and redid his makeup, and she carried his coffin into the hearse, but the light inside her was broken. Her eyes carried a sadness that runs so deep and is so utterly profound that it can only come from the depths of her soul. I can still see it 3 years later, an emptiness in her heart, and a longing to join him. I wouldn’t blame her; God knows I’ve thought about it too.


Before my brother died, I had planned to kill myself. The world was too much, and I was so tired. I didn’t think anyone would really mind, life went on and no one would have to worry about me anymore. It wasn’t like I had a lot of friends, my funeral wouldn’t be a big affair, and my friends would move on and forget about me. I had seen all the posts on Instagram and Tumblr about how you shouldn’t commit suicide, about what would happen to your family and friends, how devastated they’d be, how they’d never shake your death. I didn’t believe any of it, sure, they’d be sad, but it’s not that dramatic, I wasn’t important. It wasn’t until my brother died that I realised how true all of it was, that the smallest interactions can have such an impact that you don’t even realize.


I watched my brother’s friends – people he thought didn’t care all too much – sit and cry over his body, pleading for him to wake up, one friend even travelled from America just to come to say goodbye. We received messages, gifts, and flowers from customers at his work, people saying that they cherished the little conversations that they’d had with him while he made their coffees and that they’d miss seeing his face, even people from his gym reached out to say they’d miss him, that he was supportive of everyone and always was so nice to talk to. His teachers at his funeral and memorial saying that he was a hilarious nightmare of a student, and a wonderful person who they’d remember fondly.


My thoughts of friends moving on and forgetting were completely derailed as I watched his over the years, still grieving his death and taking the time to honour his memory. Holding him close to their hearts, even after years have gone by.


Grief scares people. It’s a fact that I learned very quickly after my brother died, it’s too intense for people and sometimes they run from it, from you. Along with the loss of your loved one, you lose friends too. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and the five stages aren’t linear, they come out of order and happen in five minutes if they want to, and sometimes there’s an audience for the sudden explosion of emotions.


There is an odd emotional tumultuousness that comes with grief. The days and years that follow aren’t a constant sadness, you don’t walk around with tears permanently threatening to fall. There’s laughter, moments of genuine and pure joy, and fond reminiscence. To an outsider, it looks out of place, callous even, but it’s these moments that are the lifeline you desperately cling to in order to escape a sadness that controls every other minute of the day. The day my brother died, my uncle cooked us a roast chicken dinner, and we spent about 10 minutes cracking up about how much he would have hated it as he was vegan, over the weeks we shared embarrassing and funny stories and we made wildly inappropriate and dark jokes because in all honesty, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and we’d already shed enough tears.

Through these weird moments of crying, laughing, crying-laughing, and sharing memories and stories, you forge connections with people that you don’t expect. Some are forged to help you through the darkest periods of grief before fading, and some are lifelong bonds.

I spent years being terrified of my brother’s friends as the little sister that was so much younger. After his death, his friends welcomed me into their circle with open arms, and though I’m not close with all of them now, they were a crucial connection to him, and my mum and I were the same for them. We all needed each other to start healing, and now the majority of us have branched off into our own lives, but still embrace the grief and love for my brother that ties us together.


It is interesting though, grief is so all-encompassing when you’re inside it, everything is tinged with an element of sadness and their name never truly leaves your head. But outside the little circle of grief, life goes on and people forget. People don’t say my brother’s name anymore, it started because they were scared that they’d send us into tears, but now it’s because it’s not relevant anymore, at least, not to them. It’s understandable, people have their own lives and their own struggles to deal with, but sometimes it hurts when some of your closest people forget that you ever had a brother – or a son.


The world starts moving again, but it moves around you for a long period of time while you’re stuck at a standstill wondering how everyone is moving so fast, or at all. They say that the hardest part is a few weeks to a month after the death. Everyone surrounds you for those weeks, doing everything they can to help, but then they get busy, or tired, and they move on themselves. Unfortunately, they unintentionally leave you in the dust wondering where everyone went. It’s completely true, the initial rush of support is both overwhelming and so comforting, but before you know it people have gone back to their lives and you’re still in the deepest moments of grief, feeling like you’re drowning and alone.


The grief of losing a sibling or a child never truly goes away, or fades, really. It gets to a point where it doesn’t control your day, and it’s not the first thought you have when you wake up, or the last thing you think about at night. In fact, there’s moments where you forget, as brutal as it is and as guilty as it might make you feel – but those moments are blissful, a brief period where life is what it once was, and the sadness that has enveloped your world doesn’t exist. It’s a crushing feeling, coming back to the real world, and remembering what you once knew and never appreciated is gone.


But through grief, pain, and trauma, you grow. You develop a resilience that prepares you for anything – though some might view it as a jadedness – eventually you develop a new appreciation for life, and instead of living for your loved one, trying to fulfil their dreams to honour them, you realize how short and unstable life is and learn to live for yourself with a new, deeper understanding of how truly important it is to seek out and embrace what makes you happy. It takes a long time and a lot of fear, but it happens.