When my brother died, it had been a long time coming. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in his teens and died aged 23. Still, the news reduced me to tears unlike anything I’d experienced before. My voice was squeaky, my throat tight, all out of my control. Embarrassed at being so vulnerable in public, I went and sobbed on my bedroom floor as I tried to reason with what had happened.
Right from the start, I had an instinct to hide. Maybe I didn’t want to be a burden. Maybe I was worried about opening up, not knowing how to close down again. Either way, I avoided being looked after.
The next day, friends of the family started showing up with food, not knowing what else to do. Not liking to see them sad, I gave each a big greeting with even bigger thanks. When they expressed their condolences, I handed them right back.
I’m sorry for your loss,” they’d say.
“Yes, and me yours,” I’d answer, as if it were all the same.
Some stayed to sit in the lounge with us and watch his favourite movies. I assumed the role of host, making sure everyone felt welcome, comfortable and content. My mum stayed in the kitchen with the visiting parents, hiding her devastation well. Sensing she was fragile, I did all I could to help—cleaning the dishes, preparing hot drinks, making light conversation, anything to lighten her load.
Thinking about others stopped me thinking about myself. It made me feel better in the short term, but removed me from reality. Already, I had begun to minimise what had happened to me, focusing instead on how it had affected others.
It had some strange effects. When I called my retail boss to explain why I wouldn’t be at work that week, they sent their regards: “Obviously that’s terrible news, I just wish you’d told us sooner.”
I told my mum and she said, “What, that he died yesterday? Bastards.”
The fact that their reaction was disproportionate never even entered my mind.
We held the wake soon after. I really enjoyed seeing so many old faces and catching up. Not knowing how to talk about it, I talked around the elephant in the coffin, like a comedy actor cast in a tragedy.
How’ve you been?” I’d say.” It’s great to see you.”
“Yes, I just wish it was under better circumstances,” they’d reply.
“Well, at least I get to see you in a suit. You look like you’re on trial!”
For the funeral, I wrote a speech and read it to a full church, reminiscing about our upbringing and celebrating his accomplishments. I made sure it had lots of funny bits, more like a best man’s speech than a eulogy.
Humour was quickly becoming an effective distraction. It lightened the mood, while side-stepping the cause of its heaviness, leaving the pain raw and unprocessed. Each joke seemed to say “Why should I be down? It would serve no purpose. Don’t look back.
Shortly after, I returned to university and broke the news to a select set of friends, sticking to the facts. I remember wishing there was a button I could push to make everyone know in an instant, saving me the hassle of telling them. No matter how I phrased it, my brother’s death really killed the mood. The sooner I could make a joke afterwards, the better.
Without realising, I’d started to keep a mental list of those who did and didn’t know, splitting my world in two. Overnight, I shut out a fraction of my friends, becoming false in their company or absent altogether. Some took it personally, having no reason not to, and still do to this day.
Once I’d started masking, it was hard to stop, and the person I hurt most was myself. By limiting the number of those who could probe, I could play make-believe and suspend reality. But it couldn’t go on forever, and on some level I think I knew.
I tried my best to resume life as normal, sinking into my assigned reading and essays. When not studying, I went out almost every night, not wanting to be sober, alone or silent. I’d message everyone to see who was where and go from one party to the next, always smiling, joking and drinking.
Already, I was becoming adept at dodging discomfort, whether by doping or distracting myself. One friend said that if he didn’t know my news, he’d never have guessed, and I remember thinking that was exactly what I was going for.
After university, I threw myself into some more big projects. First, I decided to write a novel, an enormous three-hundred-thousand-word trilogy. It was the perfect means to occupy my mind, day and night. But between drafts, I would feel a deep emptiness. I would question my life’s direction, thinking full time work a death sentence and all professions purposeless. So, I decided to volunteer. Devoting myself to a noble cause gave my life the meaning it was lacking.
I was happy, in a way, but there was an anxiety about me. I couldn’t just be. If I did nothing, I felt like nothing. If I stayed in one weekend, I’d wonder if I’d lost my friends forever. I would leap into relationships only to find them a disappointment, then end them and wonder what went wrong, and repeat the cycle. Unfortunately, I was also moving through my twenties, when people become more invested in their careers and relationships. I took it personally and felt behind.
Eventually, I had too many questions without answers and sought some support. Through several months of counselling, I totally avoided talking about my brother, until my therapist touched on the subject.
You’ve suffered a great loss,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose I have.”
Although I changed the subject, a seed had been planted. As is often the case with counselling, it took time for me to realise why her simple statement was so important.
On the outside, I was pretending nothing had happened, but inside, I was trying to address my pain. That’s why I was so desperate for company, why I was so distrustful of relationships, and why I couldn’t sit still. I hadn’t accepted that something had gone from my world for good.
Recently, more than 10 years after the event, I decided to go back to therapy with a clear and fixed agenda: to talk about my brother. I can’t tell you what it will be like to open the box, because I don’t yet know, but I feel ready. And you know that anxiety I’ve been carrying for years? It’s eased a little already. In its place, I feel a kind of calm. Yes, I feel low at times, but less alone, like I’m sitting with my problem for once, not running from it.
What I’ve learned from all of this is that you cannot avoid pain. You have to go through your sadness or you’ll spend your whole life going around and around it. If you’re scared to be alone, sometimes that’s when you most need to be.
Bereavement is not a problem to be fixed. It’s a fact to be acknowledged. And it’s never too late.