(Casey, 24, California)
They say that even as a child you are able to understand life’s challenges—the trauma, sadness, and loss—that we are all bound to face at point or another, that we are somehow imbued at birth with the emotional depth that will somehow equip us with the emotional tools needed for understanding, even at a young age.
That is why when my brother was accidentally killed on his bicycle in 1995, when I was 9 years old, I had no concept about the loss and heartache that I was unwillingly thrown into. Instead, I compartmentalized my grief, hid the pain away somewhere very deep inside, preferring to continue my happy-go-lucky childhood rather than confront the dark and immutable reality I was actually experiencing.
Only now, 14 years later, has the magnitude of the raw, emotional impact of my brother’s death begun to leak out, and only now, for the first time, have I really begun to grasp the impact of the death of a loved one. To protect my childhood, I stored away the pain and loss to be dealt with in adulthood. Now, as an adult, I am beginning to experience the sense that I was robbed and left alone. I see that I was sad, that I still might be sad. I am grieving. I realize how tragic my brother’s death was and am sitting with that realization, letting my mind and heart process its full weight.
However, on some level, I knew this weight all along. Even without showing it, I knew what true loss was and the inevitable pain and anger it brought with it. Throughout my childhood, if I let myself think about it, I could feel a tangible hole in my heart that nothing could fill. Sure, the memories of my brother and the incidence of his passing lived there, but they are like wisps of reality, never settling, always leaving that empty space.
After so many years of wishing that hole would disappear, I have come to realize that this space will never be filled. It is carved into my heart, and it is where my brother now resides. If this sounds incredibly sad, it’s because it is. Death is one of the saddest elements of human existence. Its mark is distinctive and cannot be understood until it is experienced.
My friend’s dad recently passed away, and I wrote him a note sending my condolences and gently telling him about the permanence of this hole, that it is something that will always be with us, the same way that our perished sibling or parent will always be with us. My roommate was appalled. She couldn’t believe I would be so blunt. But I felt like it was important to share this awful but undeniable truth: that our loved one will be dead for the rest of our lives. My brother is gone. And his absence leaves a hole. The knowledge of its presence waxes and wanes depending on the day or even depending on my mood, but I know that it is there.
I have come to view people who have experienced the death of immediate family as members of some morbid club. We know. And this is one of the hardest things to deal with as a friend: if you have not experienced the death of a parent or sibling, you do not know. And it’s okay not to know.
Through my own personal experience, I have learned that the best thing to do for a friend who’s lost someone close is to be there for them. They may not want to talk, or they may not be ready to talk. They may be grieving in a way that seems strange or callous to you. Don’t judge. Just be there.
Be open and willing to talk. I wanted to talk about my brother’s death, wanted to tell my friend’s the details of how I was feeling and how he died, and I found that people were and still are too scared to talk about it. My advice is to ask questions. If your friend doesn’t want to respond or doesn’t want you to ask questions, I’m sure he or she will tell you this. But, on the contrary, he might not be able to say, “Please, ask me questions! I want to tell you everything” even if he wants you to.
It’s okay to be sad and to let your friend be sad. Death causes sadness. Recognize that this is a fact of life. As long as it doesn’t spiral into serious depression, sadness is a healthy part of grief. Repressing the enormity of this sadness will only cause prolonged grief and might surface later in a transformed and more volatile way.
Finally, it is important to be aware that the worst of it will pass. The most intense pain will fade, and life will become seemingly normal again. In short, there is hope. The human soul is amazing: it can come out shining after even the most profound wounds. Death, as sad as it is, is a critical part of our life experience. We grow and change through experiencing death. I am who I am because my brother died, not in spite of it. His life and death have deeply affected me and that is what keeps my connection to him alive.