How do you begin to process the loss of a brother?
I’ve asked myself this every day since we lost Kyle’s brother Jake.
His death was sudden and unexpected, so unlike Warner’s passing, which, though tragic, was somewhat controlled. I was prepared when Warner died. I knew it was coming. Rather, I knew I would have to make that hard decision when the time came; when he stopped responding to the medication. I had time to get my mind around it.
I was unprepared to lose Jake.
I was unprepared for the call from Jake’s girlfriend that night. I was almost asleep when the phone rang. I was unprepared for her voice on the other end, “we lost Jake.”
My first reaction? “Well where is he? Go find him!”
Because you’re never prepared to get that call: the one where your future sister calls to tell you your brother is dead. You think he’s figuratively lost; like he’s playing a fucked up game of hide-and-seek. You think it’s a joke so you wait for the punchline, because there’s no way your brother could be dead, right? That only happens to people on the news.
But the punchline never comes. Because we really did lose Jake. Literally. He was on his way home from a fire patrol, like he did every day….and the back, right tire on his fire engine popped. He tried to correct and the engine rolled. Jake was killed. An accident: something no one could control. A tire took Kyle’s brother. A tire took my brother.
And now we’re the people on the news.
How do you begin to process the way the love of your life crumbles to the floor upon hearing the news that his beloved younger brother is dead? How do you begin to explain the way your heart shatters to smithereens as you watch him, on the floor, immediately clasp his hands and start praying to God it isn’t true? How do you comfort the man you love with your entire being, knowing nothing you say or do will fix the fact that his brother is gone?
That scene has played over and over in my head since the night we got that call: Kyle, on the floor, praying through uncontrollable sobs. It haunts me. It sends me spinning into a part of grief I never felt with Warner: the part where I grieve for someone suffering the same loss I’m experiencing. I keep seeing Kyle’s face, tears catching in that ginger beard I love so much, looking up at me and asking “what are we going to do now? Jake is dead. What do I do, Ashten?” He looks to me for answers because I’m the planner, the logical one, the one who is steady when we are on shaky ground. I’m the one who makes sense of the chaos: and this time I don’t have the answers. I am completely helpless.
Because you don’t know what to do when you lose a loved one but you really don’t know what to do when your loved one, loses a loved one.
My grief with Warner was one-sided. It was mine. I owned it. Warner was MY baby, MY responsibility, it was MY decision to say goodbye when the time came. But this grief? It’s multi-faceted. It’s grief for Kyle who lost a brother; grief for Kyle’s parents who had to bury a son; grief for Jake’s girlfriend who lost the love of her life; grief for his friends who still have to go out and fight fires. I feel it all; all that pain, all that sorrow, all that loneliness. And then, there’s my grief: the grief of a sister who lost her brother. Because no matter what anyone says Jake was MY brother too. I had a precious, sisterly love for him. I looked up to him, even though he was 4 years younger than me. He protected me. He made me feel safe. And now, he’s gone.
I think about the memorial and I can’t breathe. The faces of 1,000 people watching Kyle walk to the stage, holding a box containing his brother’s ashes, escorted by two Honor Guard members: a forced look of bravery on his face and tears in his eyes. I can’t run to him and comfort him because he needs to do this, he wants to do this; he wants to carry his brother the rest of the way. I wanted nothing more that day than to absorb all the pain I saw in his face. How do you explain how proud you can be of someone, and how scared you are for them all at the same time? I have never loved Kyle more, nor been more scared for him than when I watched him give his tribute to his brother. I have never been more proud, or more scared for Jake’s girlfriend as she lovingly shared a quote from The Little Prince that was special to their relationship:
“To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world....”
How do you begin to explain to people how it feels to exist in grief? How something as small as one of his flat billed hats can send you into uncontrollable sobs or how one false move by someone you barely know can make you want to strike, to spit venom, to wound them so they understand maybe ⅛ of your pain? How can you tell people what it feels like to walk into the room your brother slept in and have to pack up his things, asking his grieving brother what items hold special meaning to him so you can make sure those items come home with you? How do you explain how hard it is to be strong as you hug your future sister because she’s packing up the room of the love of her life who she will never get to live with, never get to marry, and never get to have babies with. How do you live with yourself, knowing you someday get the last name she too wanted so badly but can’t have now?
All because of a tire.
When you ask me how I’m doing, this is my answer: I want to be hugged but not touched. I want to be left alone but I want people near me. I want to be consoled but not babied. I want people to understand my pain but if they try I say “you will never understand”. I need grace but I can’t ask for it.
Because grief is a moving target. One minute it’s sobbing over losing Jake; the next minute it’s nostalgia as a precious memory of him is shared. One minute it’s anger because that’s the only emotion that makes sense; the next minute its joy because of a random act of kindness bestowed on you by someone you barely know. Grief is pain in your fingernails and hair follicles. It’s sadness so great it’s unexplainable. It’s an ache so deep in your chest you feel like someone is scooping out your sternum. (Jake’s girlfriend explained her pain to me this way shortly after Jake passed, and it hits the nail on the head.)
How do you begin to process the loss of a brother?
I don’t have the answer yet. Ask me again next month.