I have been wanting to write this post for a while. I have started it a few times and saved it as a draft because I get too emotional to get through it. But, as someone who has experienced a serious loss, I felt like I needed to get it written. I still encounter people who get shy and awkward when I mention that I have a brother but he passed away five years ago. I hope that you never have to experience the heartache of losing a loved one too early or a friend having to go through it. I say ‘too early’ because the basic fact of life is that we are all going to die someday, I just hope you get as much time as possible with the people you love. But if you do, this blog post is my advice to you.
I still remember the day my brother called me, randomly, in the middle of the day. I was sitting in a small study room inside Henson Hall at Salisbury University studying for the GMAT. I ignored his first call because I was doing a timed test. I only had a couple minutes to go and promised myself I would call back once I completed the test. He left me a voicemail explaining that he had been experiencing bad headaches for three days straight so he was going to the emergency room to get checked out. He said he couldn’t reach either of our parents so he wanted me to know in case I talked to them before he did.
I don’t remember how much time passed when I received the call. Maybe an hour, maybe two. My Mom explained that the doctor had found a tumor in my brother’s brain and he was being admitted to the hospital.
Cancer. Brain Cancer. He needed brain surgery.
My brother; the one person who could always make me laugh when I needed a smile, who, no matter what we may have argued about the day before, was always there to support me and defended me no matter what. We sometimes argued and disagreed but we always knew that at the end of the day it was he and I against the world. I will never forget the day that I got those calls because it was the second worst day of my life. The first came three years later when we lost him after his tremendously brave and courageous battle with cancer.
Things change drastically for everyone when a person you love and care about is diagnosed with any type of serious disease such as cancer. Plans change, people change, life basically re-routes itself and puts you and your loved ones on a completely new path that literally blindsides you. The entire aspect of life changing so quickly and drastically is something an ‘outsider’ cannot understand.
My brothers’ cancer eventually spread to his neck and spine and affected his internal organs. The majority of his final weeks were spent in the hospital hooked up to so many machines with lines running to him. That last time I heard him talk was when I spent a night with him in his hospital room, a few days before he had to be moved back to ICU. He asked me to bring him a burger from Red Robin on my way. We shared a meal together and watched some television. Before he went to bed that night he told me he loved me. Those were the last words my brother ever said to me. I don’t think I actually slept that night. You know when you’re asleep but can still hear what is going on around you? That was me. To this day I can still remember the sound of my brother breathing as he slept in his uncomfortable hospital bed. He never once complained though. Not about his bed, the food, or his situation. He was extremely positive and always said he was going to come out on the right side of it all. He is better than me in that aspect.
A short time later I found myself in the ICU with my parents and then-fiance. I held my brothers left hand and laid my head on his chest. I listened to the final beats of his heart as it slowly stopped beating. March 17, 2013. It took me about two weeks before I didn’t cry every hour of every day. I still sleep with his shirt and watch in the drawer of my bedside table. Sometimes I take it out and just lay with it because it oddly still carries his scent.
I am not revealing all of this to make you feel sorry for me; I know there are so many people that go through what I did and also people that go through worse. I tell you this because I think it is important for everyone to know that people grieve in their own ways. We all cope with situations the best way we know how.
I only know grief as a sister who lost her older brother. My parents, especially my mother’s, grief is so much deeper and I don’t think I fully understood how much bigger it was until I had my own child. That sounds silly but it’s the truth. Having a child is letting your heart live outside your body and when that is taken away with no chance of ever coming back… just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. I would give anything to be able to take the grief away but I know I can’t because no one can do it for me.
As a friend, you try to understand what someone is going through and try to comfort your friend in their time of need. Well, at least I hope most of you have a friend that would or that you would be that friend. So the next time you see a friend or acquaintance post a ‘happy birthday’ wish to their deceased family member or friend on social media, don’t roll your eyes and think, ‘Again?! This person died so many years ago, move on already.’ Grief knows no time limit. It can manifest itself inside someone for years or perhaps a lifetime.
If you are reading this and someone you know, whether past or present, loses someone close to them, my best advice on helping them cope with their loss is don’t tell them ‘I can only imagine’ because the truth is, you can’t. Not unless you have been through something equally as tragic. The heartbreak and pain are unimaginable. Someone that was a huge fixture in their life, that they thought was going to be with them until they were old and gray, is gone forever.
What you can do is be with them. Take them their favorite food or candy and sit with them while they watch tv or read a book and just be there. There is nothing worse than being alone with your thoughts after something like that happens. If they want to talk, they will initiate it. And when they do, let them talk about their loved one. If you knew them, share your own stories. Share your memories, especially the funny ones, so you can both get a much-needed laugh. Down the road, no matter how many years have passed, when they bring up their loved one, listen to them and share stories, even if they have been told before. I don’t talk about my brother a whole lot, partially because many of my current friends never knew him, but when I am around our mutual friends we always reminisce about Dom, his contagious laugh and his crazy fun-filled life. If you are a newer friend to someone who has experienced loss I encourage you to ask about the person that once was. What they were like, etc. Your friend will be grateful that you care enough to want to know.
What you don’t want to do is abandon them. Don’t not call. You might think ‘oh, they are probably overwhelmed right now, I don’t want to bother them’, but do the opposite. Leave a message if they don’t pick up. I didn’t pick up my phone for a couple days after my brother passed but I still have the voicemails from my friends who called and left one. And if you’re close enough to make it the funeral or memorial service, go. They will remember it. One of my best friends and her Mom drove five hours for the memorial and drove five hours back immediately after. I will never be able to put into words how much that meant to me and my family.
A friend of both my brother and mine from high school reached out after his death. She had lost her mother many years prior and gave me the best advice that I have kept with me to this day, which I will leave you with and maybe it will help if you ever find yourself in my position:
“I know it’s hard when it seems like everyone around you is moving on with their life, and you still feel this empty hole in your heart, but slowly that will start to feel different (not better, but different). There will always be days that make you smile when you think of him and others that will make you bawl over missing him – I don’t think that ever changes either, but slowly those good days will outweigh the sad ones.