When I picked up the phone 16 years ago to the news that my brother was dead, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. He was my only sibling, the singular person who knew what it was like to grow up in our family. We were supposed to get a lifetime together, and instead, we got a short 21 years.
Following his death, I stumbled through months of shock. When the shock began to fall away, it was replaced with a harsher, bone-deep grief.
Sometimes it takes life whittling us down so far that we can become anew.
Submerging into the pain of my brother’s death brought me awake.
It connected me with suffering in a way I’d never experienced. Before, I’d felt pain, and even depression. But losing someone I didn’t think I could live without tenderized me. As the months piled into years, I came to see my loss as the worst, as well as one of the best, things that ever happened to me.
Here are some of the gifts I found amidst the devastation.
Connection. I went to grief groups where I sat across from an older man who’d wife had recently died. Despite his occasional racist outbursts, I connected with him because we were both grieving. Though our ages, genders and losses varied, we understood something about each other, because we knew what it felt like to miss someone so deeply.
I also made some new friends who were also grieving. While I temporarily fell away from some of my old friends, because they were dealing with college and boyfriend issues while I was just trying to get through each day. With my new friends, I could laugh about the dark, ridiculous moments of grief without them worrying I was losing my mind completely. When one of us complained about a friend not showing up for us during out hardest moments, we nodded our heads in sheer understanding.
And I wasn’t just connecting with new friends— I suddenly felt connected with everyone who had experienced a heartbreak, a tearing apart of the fabric of their life. Suffering is suffering. We all experience it. We all go through the darkness alone, and yet at the same time, we go through it with everyone else who has ever suffered.
Grief separates us, sequesters us, as the rest of the world tumbles on. And yet, it also can connect us deeply.
Expansion. When my brother died, it felt impossible to me. How could this happen to my family? To my brother? To me? Some bubble of protection that I hadn’t even known was there had burst, and I was left raw and exposed. If my brother could die, then so could I, my parents, my friends.
The idea that All The Bad Things can happen eventually spread into the idea that there was also no limit on positive things that might unfold. The universe is so much wider than what we see on a daily basis. The possibilities are infinite. Life happens, all the time—dust explodes into stars, cars collide, strangers’ eyes meet in a coffee shop—and everything is changed.
Mortality. When my brother died, it became all too easy to envision what my own death could look like. I saw it unfolding before my eyes—the obituary, the memorial service, the ravaged parents. It was almost too terrible to think about.
And yet, facing the fact that at 24, I was mortal, rearranged me. The deep knowing that life could—and would— end made me think about how I wanted my existence to be. Who were the people in my life worth truly investing in? What kind of work could I find that would fulfill me and also contribute something to the world?
There was something else, too. When I really admitted that I was just here on earth for a little while, I found I needed less. Discovering what is essential in life—love, relationships, health—makes it easy to identify the non-essentials.
Uncovering these gifts took time. Grief takes time, and perhaps never fully leaves—it softens, releases its harsh grip. But the gifts were there— waiting, patient, shimmering. May they be there for you, too.