My brother passed away on March 3rd, 2022.
When I found out on March 4th, 2022, my entire world changed.
I see the world differently now. I see others and humanity in a whole new way. And I see how although my entire being has shifted, the world continues to stay the same.
I went to sleep the same night my brother died feeling very strange. So strange, that I mentioned it to “the Magician” (a guy I was talking to at the time). Together, we brainstormed possible causes of this feeling, but I knew it was something I had never felt before. Eventually, I decided that all I could do was get a good night of sleep and hopefully that would help clear the unidentifiable feelings I had inside me.
It didn’t. I woke up feeling like there were bricks on my chest keeping me stuck in bed. So, without much choice on the matter, I went back to sleep. I woke up mid-morning (which was very unusual for me at the time) and decided that all I could possibly do that day was put on my swimsuit and go to the beach.
By divine circumstance, I happened to be in Florida. It was a last minute, two week trip to take care of my God-kitty, Shiva. I went to the beach and when I got there, my phone immediately died. I sat on the beach in lotus position for four hours, already processing something I knew I could not yet fathom. I just sat there, allowing whatever was happening to move through my body as best it could.
I left the beach and decided I wanted to be comforted by a cheeseburger, so I went to a local spot nearby and sat down at a hightop, still in somewhat of a daze. A beautiful young guy with a twinkle in his eye came to greet me as my waiter. He immediately seemed like an angel to me. He felt kind, patient and soft and he gently took my order and returned with it almost immediately, like magic. The burger nourished me in a way that I needed and I decided this waiter was special. He wasn’t hitting on me or being anything other than supremely kind to me.
When I finished eating, the strangeness still lingered and I walked out feeling like I was in a sort of dream. I got back in my car and charged my phone.
And then, what I was unknowingly dreading… a text from my Dad. The text simply said “Emily please call me now.” I could feel the weight and gravity behind it. This text, one that I’ve received before, felt bigger and more serious than all the other times my Dad wanted me to call.
I took a big breath and called him back.
And I immediately wished I hadn’t.
When my Dad answered I knew instinctively that something was gravely wrong.
“What happened, what happened, what happened?” I demanded to know.
He said he did not want to tell me while I was driving. I told him he had to tell me. And without hesitation any longer, he wailed, in the most heart-breaking, devastating manner “Jesse diiiiiiied”
“WHAT?!” I screamed.
“Yep, Jesse is no longer with us” he said and I heard the devastation, panic, and fear in his voice. My entire system went into immediate shock and denial.
I somewhat calmly said, “You’re lying, I don’t believe you, please tell me you’re kidding.”
My Dad told me this news in the most dramatic and devastating way possible and this moment will haunt me for the rest of my life. He then made some sounds that sounded like his own death before his funeral. And then he handed my Mom the phone and I knew.
The denial stood no chance when I heard my mother confirm it. I could hear it in her voice. She was scared, shaken, and sobbing. I knew it couldn’t be a joke. I knew there was no way she would kid about something like this because my brother was my Mom’s favorite, through and through. And as I’ve become older I’ve resented that less and appreciated it more. They had the same energy, the same love for fun, and my Mom would never joke about him dying.
So, my heart dropped out of my feet and my body went hollow. I felt every emotion we have on our emotional spectrum rise in the hollowness of my body cavity and start circulating like a washing machine in a tornado.
My body went into full panic. My heart started beating as fast as a bumble bee’s wings flap, my skin became flushed, sweat started forming on my forehead, I could hardly breathe, couldn’t swallow, my throat felt as dry as a water slide without water, and I forgot I was driving.
I was on a bridge and realized how dangerous this could get. And that was the first time I thought something I ended up thinking about every day since that moment, “what if I die too?”
I told my Mom that I had to get myself home safely and we hung up.
When I hung up the phone, I broke down completely. I started dry heaving and sobbing. The tears pooled in my eyes and streamed down my face like a heavily flowing river. It got to the point that my vision was so blurred it was like driving in rain.
I desperately needed to pull over, but I was still on a three mile bridge. And so, hardly able to remember any of my self-soothing tools, I remembered the most basic. I remembered to breathe. And I did my best to focus on it.
The moment I cleared the bridge, I pulled over into a parking lot, put my car in park and exhaled. The sobbing didn’t stop and my brain went into survival mode. I felt that I could not handle this news alone. It was too much to know without telling someone. And I needed to tell someone who could handle it.
I thought of who I could call. My first thought was my therapist. She is usually in sessions so I sent her a text. Something frantic disguised as somewhat calm. I figured it’d be at least until the top of the hour before she responded.
And so I went through my mental rolodex and thought of someone who would respond immediately and could handle huge amounts of emotions.
I thought of Joshua, my on and off ex boyfriend who I hadn’t spoken to in months because we had broken up. I knew, though, that he could handle big emotions, still had love for me in his heart, and would do really well at helping me to calm myself and find my way back to me. He was always pretty good at that. And so I called him and he answered with a jovialness that told me he was in a good mood and for a split second I felt sorry that I was about to change that.
He could quickly tell something was wrong and told me I could let it all out. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move. And then, I shared the horrific news with someone for the first time. I blurted it out with a faint hope that it still wasn’t real.
He had an appropriate reaction and then immediately positioned himself to help serve me. He helped me remember my breath again and he stayed on the phone with me until I got home safely.
The people that are able to step up in huge moments of crisis, are truly a God-sent.
I pulled into the driveway of my friend’s place and exhaled again. I felt a minor amount of relief now that I was physically safe, but in that safety came a lot more tension because now I had to process this news. I went inside shaking and feeling like my body had left me. As I unlocked the door I knew there was nothing inside that house that was going to comfort me.
So I sat at the top of the stairs of my best friend’s place and just stared into the darkness. I stayed there for what felt like a lifetime and then when I came out of a sort of trans, I realized it was only about an hour.
“I bet this is the only quiet time I’m going to have to myself for a long time,” I thought.
I knew my parents were waiting for me to drive to their house, but I couldn’t move yet. Thankfully, even in these crisis moments I was listening to what I needed and I allowed myself to sit there for another hour.
I had been heavily texting The Magician since our magical night and I sent him a text letting him know my whole world changed and I may be MIA for a little while. Naturally, he was concerned and asked if I wanted to call him. I called him and told him and he held it really lightly, which helped bring me out of the darkness. He talked to me for a little bit and our conversation helped me come back to reality.
When we hung up, I knew I had to do what I did not want to do. I called my parents back and told them I was on my way over.
Get to Hawai’i
I didn’t want to go to my parents house because I knew that it would make this tragic reality real. I also knew it was going to be the biggest practice of centering I’ve ever had to experience. My parents and I handle, process, and navigate the world so differently. I knew this was going to be a dense, heavy, weird, experience.
And I was right.
Seeing my parents for the first time after hearing the news felt like meeting strangers in a way. We were all so shocked and shaken we weren’t really ourselves. When I got there, I saw my Mom and embraced her in a way we’ve never hugged before. It felt raw and real and deeply sad. My Mom’s sister had driven in from Louisiana the moment my Mom called her, which was kind and helpful and also intrusive.
When I walked into my parent’s house, everything felt different. There was a wave of darkness and calm in the house. Everything felt eerily quiet and like tip toeing and whispering was appropriate. It felt like shattered hearts and chaos brooding. My Dad’s face was so red, swollen, and puffy, you could hardly see his eyes. My mom actually looked beautiful to me. Probably because I’ve rarely ever seen her express any real emotions.
This night was the last night my parents acted like my parents. From here on out, I watched my relationship with them slowly deteriorate and crumble into nothing-ness as they became more child-like and less parent-like.
From that night on, my perspective on my parents slowly shifted. As I’ve processed this through therapy a lot more, I understand why this was the case. Without knowing then what was going on, I still did my best to hold nothing but love for them as they navigated something they had no idea how to navigate.
I sat down at the kitchen counter and joined the conversation. My brother lived in Hawaii and so they were scrambling to book flights to Maui. My Mom kept saying, “I just want to be with him” as if he were still alive. My Dad was being true to his Dad-like nature and so was trying to get everything done for everyone and be strong. This superhero quality also quickly crumbled within a couple of weeks.
Seeing their helplessness broke my heart and I went into full-on crisis management mode. My aunt and I booked them tickets to Hawaii, I did all the ridiculous Covid pre-requirements so they would have an easier experience in the airports and sooner than it felt right, I was driving back to feed Shiva.
I left my parents knowing I wouldn’t see them until we were all in Hawai’i. I felt better knowing that they were taken care of and relieved knowing that I only had to get myself there.
I got back to my friend’s home and from that moment on, and for the next three months, it felt like there was a shot down clock on my life. Every second felt momentous and every minute felt like it was flying by. My moments were no longer about me. I felt I had no control over them. Every breath was spent getting to the next phase of the action plan.
And the next phase was: get to Hawai’i.
I felt so overwhelmed by everything swirling through my head around what I needed to do to get to Hawai’i in the shortest amount of time possible. I wrote a list down in my notebook and this notebook became my new everyday practice for the next couple months. It was my way of giving myself a roadmap that I could continually return to when I felt lost.
I did the most immediate thing on the list and contacted my friend and owner of Shiva. This was the second person I had to tell the news to and I tried to not think about it too much and just stick to the facts. I just needed them to work with me to get kitten care covered so I could get on a flight asap.
My friend happened to be in an ayahuasca ceremony and did not respond for almost twenty-four hours. Waiting on this response was grueling. When she did respond she immediately said “GO! Be with your family, do what you need to do. I am so so sorry. My Mom can watch the kitten.”
And so I kept going.
Not with ease, of course. Because when things fall, it all crumbles.
Shiva knocked my phone off my desk that night and it shattered. Throw that onto the pile of problems.
Feeling unable to hold the weight of all these things, I reached out to a really close friend in town, Clover.
She, by the grace of God, knew exactly what I needed and, without her own car, found a way to get to me and be a beautiful assistant to my needs.
I’ll never forget what she brought that day: cacao coffee, a smoothie, and a pot of homemade curry. These foods forever hold a special place in my heart. And, she also brought her tarot cards. Which we used to connect with my brother (more on that another time).
She went with me to the dreaded mall to get a new phone. My face puffy, eyes red, and system still in shock, she did all the talking for me. She talked to the ridiculous customer service people to help me land on the right option for me. Without her, I would have started sobbing almost immediately in the store and paid thrice as much for a phone just to get the fuck out of there.
Somehow, she even managed to make it fun. I remember giggling. And that was a big deal.
Clover had lost her dad at a young age and knew how to handle these sorts of things. She also held a higher perspective on death that gave me a lot of comfort and reassurance as I was panicking and feeling lost.
She went through the list I made with me and one by one we got it all done. I got my Covid test, booked my flight, tied up all the loose ends and sooner than I knew, I was ready to go to Hawai’i the next morning.
I have never felt more grateful for a human’s existence than I did for hers in those couple of days. It was a beautiful thing to see someone really practicing and embodying the idea of community and selfless love to be there for me in my desperate time of need. She was compassionate, strong, gentle, and encouraging. And it is my deepest hope that anyone who goes through the loss of a loved one has someone like Clover by their side in the first few days of the experience.
When Clover left, I knew I would be better off not being alone even if only until the morning. Her presence helped ground me and allowed me to feel safe. Although a lone wolf by nature and an independent conqueror of my problems, I knew this was not the time to be proud. I knew I needed people. I needed kind, caring, sensitive people by my side, at least until I got to Hawai’i to be with my parents.
I had recently reconnected with my highschool boyfriend who still lived in town (which, in hindsight was a true gift sent for exactly this moment). He has always had the kindest, sweetest heart and I knew he cared about me as a human and a friend.
I texted him to warn him that I had some heavy news to share. He could hear the fear and called me the moment he could get a break at work. I was sobbing (dry heaving really) and he was immediately alarmed. He asked what was wrong, I told him, and I felt his empathy and devastation as he felt the pain alongside me.
I told him I didn’t feel good about being alone and he said he’d be over after he got off his night shift at the restaurant he was working at. He came and comforted me with the biggest hug, he held me (platonically) all night while I attempted to sleep, and was there to be a calm witness to the rawest and realest tears of heartbreak and pain I’ve ever known.
And, he drove me to the airport at five o’clock the next morning.
Grieving in the airport was awful. I knew it was going to be hard, but it was even harder than I was prepared for.
I cried the whole time, constantly having to release the feelings of judgment from others and commit to whatever safety I could find inside me. At one point, I was sitting across from a man, at nine a.m., eating a breakfast sandwich along with my tears. I was crying so hard and yet so hungry, I had no shame and kept doing both.
I could feel the immense concern this man had for me, but I couldn’t be bothered to explain my circumstances. I had my noise canceling headphones in and refused to make eye contact.
I maintained myself safely in the energy of my own cocoon and just kept thinking, “I can’t be the only one crying in an airport” or “I’m sure people will understand.” The tears and pain could not be held back, so I took it moment by moment through the Pensacola airport to the Denver airport, trying to take care of myself as best as possible.
As I moved through the airport, it felt like I was walking in a dream similar to before I had found out the news. Now, this dream felt more like a nightmare. It was like I wasn’t really there and was watching myself live out a horror film. I think I disassociated from reality, as I’m sure people do when in so much shock.
Time wasn’t really a thing. Time was strung together by each moment of breath and sometimes moments of awareness. And I really did not have the capacity to keep up with the hustle of the airport. I walked slowly, breathing with each step.
And so, it was no surprise when I landed in the Denver airport and got to the gate for my final flight to Hawai’i and it read “boarding closed.” My heart dropped. I immediately panicked as I walked up to the desk at the gate. I figured I’d have to make arrangements to stay overnight, which was the worst case scenario. I felt the lump in my throat grow bigger.
To my surprise, the flight attendant was another angel on my path helping to make everything easier. I walked up to her, and without telling her my name, she slid over a boarding pass that read “Emily Hopper.” All she said was, “Don’t worry. We have you on the next flight in an hour.”
I exhaled. I felt relief wash over me.
“Thank you, brother,” I thought.
I took my new boarding pass, didn’t question it, and went to sit down. I thought, “Well, this is perfect. I probably needed this hour to de-stress anyway.” And so I pulled up a meditation for anxiety and stress and began listening to it. Instead of calming me, it actually triggered me. And all of a sudden the panic was back, in my chest and throat, making me want to scream, wail, and throw things.
I looked around and tried to stay calm. I didn’t want to alarm all the innocent seeming strangers around me. I turned off the meditation and focused on my breath again. I realized what the panic was about. I did not want to fly to Hawai’i without my brother on the other side to greet me.
I didn’t know what to do so I began praying. To God, the Universe, and my brother.
“God, help me,” I shot straight into the sky.
“Universe, guide me,” I threw out into the existence around me.
“Brother, if you want me to get on that fucking plane you better send some help,” I demanded, not sure where he was anymore in this world.
And almost immediately, I remembered something.
One of my brother and I’s oldest friends, Tom, had been skiing in Colorado that weekend. It was Sunday so he was probably flying back to Austin that day.
I grabbed my phone and texted, “Hey Tom, do you happen to be in the Denver airport right now?”
And, of course, he was. He responded, “Hey Em, yes I’m walking through security right now. Are you here?”
I knew he was skiing because I was the one to tell all my brother’s friends about his death. And I reached out to them individually letting them know that I had some tragic news and wanted to make sure they were in the right place and head space to receive it. Tom actually said he’d love it if I told him when he got back home to Austin. Completely understandable. However, the news of my brother’s death spread like wildfire and it turned out that Tom had already found out.
He asked me what gate I was at, left his friends, and walked right to me. His hug at that moment was absolutely everything. It was exactly what I needed to regain my courage and strength. He stood by my side all the way until I boarded the plane.
As I passed the boarding agent, I whispered, “Thanks brother” and felt him cheer me on as I found my seat on the flight.
While my brother was not on the other side of my flight to Hawai’i, I figured I’d find some solace in being with my parents again.
I knew it would be hard, but I figured we had each other and would get through it together. Boy was I in for another shock.
My parents were waiting for me at my brother’s house and so I Ubered there prepared to embrace the unknown with as much courage as I could find inside me.
I walked into my brother’s house and felt the stagnancy of death. His house, which is usually so alive with shenanigans and goings-ons, was quiet, sad, dark, and hollow. My parents, still as puffy, swollen and weak-seeming from crying as when I left them, gave me a hug that felt so wrong.
“Why are we hugging?” I thought. “I want to break things.”
The anger was coming and I could feel it rising like fire in my gut. But, I recognized it, and let it pass, knowing my parents would not understand such strong emotions. So instead, I played along with what they had going on.
They were cleaning his house, going through all his documents, and doing stuff that seemed stupid and trivial to me. But, I figured, they are the parents so they must know what they are doing.
In some strange transition among all this, it seemed that I became the parent and them the children. I was aware of this and they resented this. Rightfully so. And at the same time, I could not trust their decisions. They were in such a state of panic, angst, and heartbreak, they weren’t making sense.
I stepped up more than I’ve ever stepped up for anything in my life. I saw what needed to be done and I did it. I saw the tasks that had to be completed to get through the process of death and I did them with courage and determination.
I contacted the necessary people, helped to set up the viewing at the funeral home, wrote the obituary and made sure flowers would be delivered, contacted friends and family to tell them the news, kept his best friends in the loop, planned two beautiful celebrations of life (one in Hawai’i and one in Pensacola) with the help of friends, and I did my best to give all his stuff to people who cared about him instead of donate it all like my parents planned to do. My parents left after two weeks of being in Hawaii, shortly after the viewing, and I was left to move everything out of his house in the remaining two weeks of the month (which also came with dealing with his crazy and incredibly rude landlord.) None of these tasks were easy and each came with it's own nuances of extreme emotion. But my goal through it all was to give my parents as much space as possible to relax.
I was able to see somewhat clearly through all the chaos, pain, and confusion. It felt like my twenties really helped to prepare me for finding those pockets of peace in the biggest of shit storms. I chose to act from a place of clarity and just kept doing what I felt was right and what I felt my brother would have wanted.
I held as much compassion as possible for my parents while also allowing myself grace to feel differently about them. I was so focused on getting through the process and finding true inner strength, grit, and stability among the most horrific circumstances.
I knew this was something I could do, though. I knew that my entire life had prepared me for this. I knew that my soul-searching hero’s journey in my twenties and all the experiences I had up to this point were exactly the lessons I needed to be able to find calm in the chaos. And I knew it was my strength that would carry our family through.
My brother liked to tell everyone how “organized” I was. He picked this up in highschool and never let it go. I thought about how proud he would be for all my organization during my time in Hawaii.
I suggested our family do morning check-ins around nine AM to get clear on what each of us would be tackling that day. (I also enacted “5 minute open shares” to let some feelings out; that did not last long). My organization, while effective for me, seemed to be a waste of time for my parents. It was tense and frustrating. Each of us feeling a different emotion deeply while showing up to talk logistics was rough. Some days I was angry, my mom was sad, and my dad was avoidant. Other mornings I was crying, my dad was angry, and my mom avoidant.
My parents showing up for these meetings, I could quickly tell, were just to appease me. My Dad’s list each morning had two to three things on it, while mine was full. My mom would take on things I knew she wouldn’t finish and the next morning her list was always the same.
I observed my parents in these very tender days with a lot of awareness. To observe their pain was the most heartbreaking event I’ve experienced. I knew that losing a son was very different than losing a sibling and while my pain was immense, I knew theirs was threefold. So I did my best to keep forgiving them for all the ways they failed to show up when I needed them the most.
My Dad woke up one morning with intention and purpose and I thought, “Okay, we are going to make progress today.” And instead of doing the things that needed to be done, he chose to put his energy into cleaning my brother’s grill. The grill that we had decided we were going to sell. I watched him as he scrubbed it for hours in the hot Hawaiian sun, sweat dripping from his bald head, and his face burning from the brightness. He spent all morning and into the afternoon cleaning this grill. I watched with desperation, compassion, and confusion, and I knew that their heartache was more immense than I could ever fathom. I went outside and offered him a hat to protect him from the sun and he kept going.
I turned my attention to my mom. She seemed to be totally consumed by his laundry. She spent almost a full week tending to all his dirty clothes and sheets, making sure they were properly clean, washed, folded, and put back in a proper place. It was the most “Mom” thing she could do. My heart broke a little more.
And from witnessing this, I made a decision. I decided that I would stand up, right here, right now. Even if it meant I’d be standing alone on an island. I knew that one of us had to. One of us had to be on solid ground. And the others could join later.
I knew with full certainty that I was desperately needed (whether my parents wanted to recognize that or not) to help make sense of the pieces my brother left behind.
When my brother first died, I mistakenly thought everyone around me would be as changed as I allowed myself to be. It wasn’t true though. Death only changes those who are open to it. I thought that because I immediately felt more open, loving, and connected through the tragedy that my parents would too.
The reality is, many people are not open to the transformation that is possible through experiencing the death of a loved one. Often they become more closed-off instead. And when you close, it can bring misplaced feelings and actions of anger, rage, hate, and isolation. Experiencing death in this way brings out the worst in you and highlights all the work you have left to do. And without the awareness, it typically gets projected onto your closest loved ones that are still left.
I was the scapegoat.
My parents projected a lot of their hurt onto me in those few months. I was aware of it and I knew what was happening, so I did my best to not react or retaliate or take it too personal (even though EVERYTHING was so personal during this supremely vulnerable time). I held my ground on the island of peace I had found and let them do what they needed to do. It hurt. It hurt a lot. But I knew that they did not know how to process what was happening and that they didn’t have the same tools I had spent a decade gathering.
Through therapy, I learned that death can make what was already bad, worse. My family and I have never had the easiest dynamic. And so all the brokenness cracked open even wider.
Trying to control outcomes during an unpredictable tragedy and time of chaos is much harder than surrendering to it. This is the divide. And it becomes so clear in times of panic. You can clearly see who is “here” and who is not. Some of the most heartbreaking scenes of my brother’s death was watching my parents go through this without awareness. At times, they, to me, looked like toddlers walking around with unpinned hand grenades. And I was doing my best to make sure they didn’t step on a land mine in the process.
Without awareness, life can be really hard. And without awareness, maybe you don’t even know that. But if you look around, your relationships will tell you how you’re doing.
For my parents, it became somewhat evident that a relationship with me is something they are willing to let crumble with the rest of the rubble. They let their grief, pain, confusion, and trauma responses build a massive wall between us. To the point that me continuing to be in their life was becoming a vulnerable act of insanity on my end.
I thought that through this, we would become a more loving and connected family. We’d finally learn how to communicate and work through things together. I held out so much hope each day that my parents would become the parents I wanted them to be.
And that was the problem. I held space for them too high above their heads. They couldn’t reach my expectations and were finding it difficult to be around someone who held them so highly. While I saw this, I also couldn’t stop. Because the alternative was deep acceptance that they aren’t who I needed them to be. Accepting that my parents cannot love and support me in the way I need to be loved and supported.
And so, as I grieved the loss of my brother, I simultaneously grieved the loss of my parents.
My heart ripped open more and more each day I was in Hawaii. Between witnessing my parents, talking with my brother’s girlfriend, and becoming temporary roommates with his best friend, although I was not alone, I felt deeply lonely.
I was also discovering parts of my brother I never knew, which made me feel lost and confused.
Each day I woke up, I had about ten minutes of peace before I remembered the tragedy of my life. Those ten minutes were sometimes the only thing that got me through the day, knowing that at the end of it, I would get to go to sleep and wake up to those sacred ten minutes of peace again.
My brother’s house was interesting. He was interesting. He never locked his doors and it was always open to anyone that wanted to come through. This didn’t change even when he was gone.
My parents and I had very little alone time or space to ourselves. A part of me loved this, being surrounded by interesting, fun people that loved him for who he was: a partier with a heart of gold, surrounded by a super fun and funny ego preventing you from ever really getting in. And that brought me great comfort. It also brought me great angst.
From the time I sat on the top of the stairs at my friend’s place to two full months later when I finally went home to my home in Austin, I had not been alone for more than thirty minutes. It was draining, exhausting, and incredibly overwhelming.
I am so different from my brother. I thrive in solitude and have to make a real effort to surround myself with people. I love alone time and find deep peace in the comfort of my own energy. My brother, on the other hand, from what I’ve gathered, was anxious and panicky when alone. And so he did what he could to never be alone.
One of the ways he did this was by always having a girlfriend. And his girlfriend at the time of his death, was Shaye. Shaye and my brother had only been dating for nine months or so and this was the first time I was meeting her.
For the first time ever, I genuinely understood his relationship and I genuinely adored his girlfriend. This has rarely been the case.
Generally, I try to see the good in people and so I met her with an open heart (even though I knew his track record of girlfriends). And she blew me away. Shaye was a kind, beautiful, young soul that seemed like the perfect fit for my brother. She said yes to everything, was always ready for the next adventure, loved trying new things, never wore shoes, and didn’t tolerate the bullshit my brother would throw sometimes.
My brother could be a real dick, make no mistake about it, and when I asked Shaye what she would do when he displayed those behaviors, she said she was just confused and would cry because she didn’t know why he was being mean to her. This innocence, I knew, was the only thing that could break my brother. It was like yelling at a sweet bunny rabbit. And I knew when I heard her say that, that she was meant for him. I knew that he had finally found something so soft and so sweet that he could no longer behave in a way he had always gotten away with.
I really knew she was for him when we were talking about cannibalism, something my brother had a strange fascination for, and she said, “Yeah, I’d try a thumb or something!” and I thought, “Wow, they really make sense!”
Shaye, although much younger, has this spirit about her that I knew my brother would have been drawn to like a moth to a flame. And it sounds like he was. I was told they were inseparable the whole time they dated and that made perfect sense to me. Shaye was my brother’s peace.
Her peaceful and playful energy, I believe, is what kept him grounded and hopeful. The way she lives life with a nonchalant attitude and fully believing anything is possible, is exactly what my brother needed and wanted in someone.
My Mom, retiring to bed one night after the Hawaii Celebration of Life, sobbing, said, “I think Shaye was the one” and although part of me rolled my eyes at her because firstly, if you knew my brother you knew marriage was far beyond the scope of his lifestyle and secondly, the things my mother chose to latch on to and mourn seemed so nonsensical to me. She mourned all the fairytales in her head mostly, not what was really happening. But, for once, I understood her pain. I understood that what she really meant was “he was finding healthier relationships and Shaye was the closest he would probably ever get to marriage.”
Shaye and I have become soul sisters since, navigating this process very similarly. While she and I, on the surface, seem like very different people, I believe we have the same heart and the same capacity to love, even through extreme adversity. We’ve both chosen to feel it all, love even more through this, and kindly say “fuck you” to all the opinions and advice people have given us on how to process this.
Grief is so personal. Even if you are talking with someone who has lost someone, it’s impossible for them to truly understand and feel what it’s like to lose the exact person and relationship you have lost. And this can feel so incredibly isolating.
When I talk to Shaye, though, my heart feels safe to open. It feels understood. It feels like finally someone fucking gets it. She understands me on a level no one ever will, as I do her. And for this reason, and the love we shared for my brother (although two very different loves), we will be connected for life. And to me, that is a sweet sweet and unexpected gift through all this.
Mostly this past year has been hard and painful, like processing dense, heavy bricks. Or cement in your gut. There’s so much grit and grime and roughness and spikes and rigidity that comes with grief processing. It hurts. Its painful prick and unavoidable stings have been constant, and that’s just on the surface.
The deep pain is equivalent to a huge weight falling on your heart one million times over. The bruise that is left on the heart is massive and it’s painful to the touch, always. It feels like burning alive in a cave without having access to oxygen. It is so intense and smoldering without ever letting up… until it does. If only for a moment, an hour. Whatever it may be, there are moments in between that feel soft, bearable, tender, and loving. How does this happen when the moments before were just so awful, so dreadful, so unforgiving? And now, I can breathe. I can rest. I can relax. I’ve surfaced from the wave.
That is how grief works apparently. “It comes in waves.” It hits you like a ten foot barreller and takes you under and tosses you around like a tiny garment in the washing machine of life. It doesn’t let up. Until you’re gasping for air, about to be incapacitated. When you finally come up for air, you’re delirious and also immensely grateful, relieved, and able to restore life.
In time, the surfacing happens quicker and you tread water in between the next wave a little longer.
And it’s in the treading water that you really have to get things done, too. There’s really no time to waste. You need to prepare yourself and the space around you so that you can be as ready as possible for the next one. There’s no stopping the waves, so you might as well go with them. Breathing is what I always return to. If you can bring your breathing to a state of calm, it helps to bring yourself out of panic while anticipating when the next wave will hit. And they tend to hit at the most inopportune times.
What got me through was knowing that the sacred space between the waves always came, no matter how much I was drowning. And if I could focus on filling my lungs with good, fresh air any chance I had and remember that I am still alive, breathing, and existing, then I could somehow keep going.
What I’m learning is that it is important to keep going. Keep moving forward. There is nothing in life that can’t be moved through, processed, or felt. That is why we are humans. And it is our spirituality that gives us perspective to see the bigger picture. Keep taking the action to get to where you want to be. Likely, if you’re experiencing the death of a loved one, you may have realized, like me, how much higher the stakes are. It’s like the bar was raised on my life exactly where I am standing.
Because now I know my life can be gone in an instant. Now I know there is just this one lifetime (until perhaps we are reborn into new lifetimes) and really it’s just our job to live it to the best of our ability. Because the truth is, no one knows what the fuck they are doing. No one actually knows why we are here, why we are humans, or what we were put here to do. Sure, your spirituality plays a big role in settling this angst, but even then, there is no hard fact about what happens to us when we die. We just have faith that something (hopefully positive) happens. This faith is what keeps us going.
Faith is a beautiful thing. Faith is believing the space between the waves will always come. Faith is knowing that there is a higher cosmic force at play that is directing my life in a bigger way than I could ever dream. Faith is knowing that I will be supported and taken care of no matter where I am or where I go because the Universe / God has my back.
Faith is what keeps me going. Faith that everything really does happen for a reason and that if I look just a little closer, I can find those reasons. I can see the gifts, lessons, and blessings that are waiting for me on the other side of the pain, grief, and sadness.
My brother’s life and legacy is one that I have to believe continues even after his life on Earth has ended. I have to believe that there is beauty in the rubble surrounding me. There is life waiting to be reborn under the ashes. I have to believe that he was here for a reason and even though he has died, there are still plenty of reasons for me to keep living.
Feeling it All
I choose to feel. I made that choice in my journey long before my brother passed. I knew when this happened that it would be the ultimate test to my core belief.
I am completely “in it” right now as I write this, looking for the other side, and still choosing to feel everything. As time passes, it does get easier. And at the same time, I know that no matter how much time passes, I will always have feelings to feel around this.
So it becomes a practice of getting really comfortable with the feelings of grief, sadness, and anger. Understanding that these emotions do not have to grip me so tightly. That I can loosen the grip by allowing the feelings to move through me.
Mornings are really the hardest. I wake up and remember, every day, that I am now an only child. I wake up and remember that there is something missing. I feel the deep and hollow existence almost as if it is lying in bed next to me. Each morning, I channel my inner Brene Brown and claim, “I choose courage over comfort” before my feet hit the floor. Most mornings it works, some mornings, there’s no chance.
It’s hard to live out a full day without crumbling to the pain. I am back in Austin now, where no one knew my brother, and so it can feel easy to forget what I’m going through or forget that I’m grieving sometimes even. Because life here moves quickly. People here move through their problems quickly. And sometimes I just want to take it slow. I want to sit with the pain, feel the fire, and understand how to lessen the heat.
Slowing down can be excruciating, but it feels necessary. Slowing down seems to be the only real way to feel it all. And in this slower state of existence, is also where I am able to find the gifts, blessings, and offerings being sent to me. In a slower state, life feels more manageable. This slower state also can feel like I’m drowning. Like I’m engulfed in water and can’t make it to the surface for air.
And yet, to slow down is all I can do. A slower paced life is the nourishing I need, the awareness and observation I crave, and the slow burn of feeling the massive amounts of emotions running through my body that in some ways, helps me to feel alive again.
Moving too quickly through this offers feelings of numbness. The path of distraction begets more pain. You become disconnected from yourself, others, and the world around you, even though it may look like you’re involved in all things connection. I often catch myself in this place. The energy inside me will feel like a clown juggling chaos and throwing messes into the air just to watch the disarray of it all. When I find myself feeling this way, I know it’s time to stop, slow down, and feel. It’s time to get to the core of the mess and find the magic. And the magic is usually barricaded by thick, heavy emotions I’ve been holding back.
The crying can feel unbearable sometimes. When I allow it, it can get so deep into my chest that I am not sure I’ll survive. Like someone is pulling my heart at all corners and taking pleasure in the ripping and stretching of it until it tears and shreds into an unrecognizable state.
And then, a breath. And my body is alive again.
And then, back into the depths. And my body is starving for air again.
This continues until it is all out… for the moment. Until my reserves are empty, my tear ducts are dried out, and my body feels light and tingly.
And then, somehow, I pick myself up, put my feet back on the ground, and move on with my day.
It’s pretty wondrous how I am able to continue living life when I feel totally shattered, crushed, broken, and lifeless on the inside. It is a true testament to the resiliency of human beings. We are able to function even when we don’t feel fully capable. We are able to “go through the motions” when absolutely none of it makes sense.
Even as my world has been flipped upside down, I am still able to find a path to walk. I still wake up and continue to progress my life forward. Because it’s true, life doesn’t stop even during or after a tragedy. It continues spinning. Time keeps ticking.
And it is up to me to be a part of the flow of life. Even if it means swimming against the current, drowning in the deep emotional waters, or having to bob in the depths of it because I can’t stand. It doesn’t matter, life must go on. The ocean continues to ebb and flow, the tides never stop rising and falling.
And so, it is up to me to see this and move with it, through it, and become part of it or I can resist it, flail in it, or refuse to see the water. Either way, it’s happening.
But if you grew up on an ocean like me, you know that the quickest way to die in a rip current is to fight it. And so I know the power of surrender. You have to let the tide take you and carry you out into the scary, deep, and turbulent ocean, until it releases you. Until it says, “okay you’ve surrendered, swim back to shore now.”
And then, as you arrive at shore, you feel different. Like life is truly a gift, to be lived. Life is not the rip current. The rip current is a part of life, but you… you ARE life. And so long as you are still taking an in breath and an out breath, you are meant to be alive.
So many of us live in a constant state of fear. We are constantly fearing death, tragedy, and even our own existence. And then, when those biggest fears become your every waking moment and you’re facing exactly what you feared most, something shifts. It has to. Because fear and reality become one and there’s no denying the truth anymore. The stories in your head are now laid out in front of you in physical order. You can touch the tragedy, you are experiencing the gut-wrenching, heart-ripping pain, and there’s no hiding from it.
So, I faced it. And I imagine some don’t ever face it. And I know some don’t make it through death of a loved one. If I hadn’t been a light warrior in training for the last five years, I don’t know if I would have made it through. I watch my parents struggle to know what to do, how to feel, process, or live again. And I know this could have been me. If I followed the path they laid out for me. I know that if I had never broken free from their grip of perfection and emotional unavailability and found the real me inside my heart, my brother’s death would have killed me. I would have fallen victim to this circumstance and never stood back up. I would have lived my life as a weak, inconsolable sufferer.
It is because of my commitment to myself and a higher power that I’ve found strength, grace, and purpose through my brother’s death.
I’ve never fully understood what it means to be human and now, I’ve never felt more human in my life. It’s like a whole other side of life has revealed itself. I thought I was so awake, until my other eye opened.
This pain, this experience, this grief, is specific to humans. It is what sets us apart from other species, our ability to feel, process, and understand complex situations and tragic events. It is both a blessing and a curse.
To feel is a gift, to feel loss is a gift from hell. The outcome is the most human thing I’ve ever seen. The mess, the tears, the chaos, the rage, the enlightenment, is all so deeply part of the human experience and I have been bestowed with this gift.
And this pain is now what allows me to connect to humanity in a way I’ve never been able to before.
All in all, I believe I love my brother more now than I did when he was alive. That may seem like a weird or fucked up thing to say, but when he was alive, I didn’t know him completely. I didn’t talk to him regularly. I didn’t always know what was going on behind the scenes. Now, I feel like I really know him through and through. And we talk like we’re talking on the phone every day. It’s like the veils have been dropped and I know the truth of who he is now. And some of that truth is ugly. But most of it is incredibly inspiring. And no matter what the truth is, I love my brother for exactly who he was.
He was this weird, crazy, full of life guy that tricked everyone into being happy.
He wouldn’t tolerate a too-serious person and he wouldn’t let you escape his presence without feeling like you had a good time. He had a kind heart, although he piled lots of egotistical behaviors on top of it, you could always sense its presence.
You always wanted to stick around to see what he’d do next, and he never let you leave before a sunset happened. If an ocean was near, you knew you’d be swimming in it shortly, and if a bar was near, you knew he’d be taking you there soon.
He listened to music that made him happy (or crazy) and he filled rooms and his house with people who didn’t judge him, but instead partied with him. And the party he was having was never mediocre. He was partying for life. He partied in a way that said “Hey, I may not live forever, but while I’m living, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want. Because why not?”
He ordered entire sushi menus and jumped off thirty-foot waterfalls, he tried surfing once (with the goal to drink a beer while riding a wave) and rented out entire hotel pool bars for him and his friends.
He bravely cut himself off from our parents' money, moved to Hawaii, and made his wildest dreams come true.
Maybe he forgot about me along the way, maybe he didn’t. But it always seemed like we had this unspoken agreement that we both prioritized living our own life over anything else and that one day maybe that would change and we’d get to see what it felt like to prioritize family. That’s what eats at me the most. The grim fact that I will never know what our thirties and beyond would have brought us.
I always dreamed of him being the most fun uncle to my children and often imagined his reaction when I would tell him I’m pregnant. I always felt that it would be me having kids that would change his heart forever. It sucks so badly that I’ll never get to know how our lives would have unfolded. And it is a true tragedy that I didn’t make the most of my time with him while I had it.
I always saw my brother as a “man of the people'', and while I always deeply craved a close connection with him, I knew that’s just not who he was. And so I admired him from afar. From a safe distance where I couldn’t get hurt by his surface level commitment to a relationship with me. And now, I’d do just about anything to bring back just one week, one month, one more year with him.
I’d do it all so differently.
I wouldn’t try to force him to be anything he was not. I’d just listen, and ask curious questions, and try to get to know him without letting the typical sibling bullshit get in the way. I’d hug him a million times, even though he’d probably only comfortably tolerate about two. And I’d tell him how much I love him, just as he is.
I’d tell him I love him so much. Until he really knew it. And I’d expect nothing in return.
I’d join him on adventures, plan trips, and get so totally drunk with him. I’d do crazy things with him just because it somehow felt safe. I’d let him know that I’ve always admired him and the way he never let anyone mold him into someone he’s not, and I’d tell him I’m sorry our Dad was shitty to him growing up and that it wasn’t his fault.
I’d give anything to have any kind of moment with him again, small or big. Heartfelt or dumb. It wouldn’t matter. Because to just see his stupid goofy grin again would turn the light back on inside me and make my heart start beating again. It’d fill my hollow insides with love, regardless of if we were having a loving moment or not.
Brother, I miss you. I’ll always miss you. This hurt will never go away and I know that. I just hope I can give it some purpose in your honor. I love you always, big brother.