Seven Lessons Learned from the Loss of My Brother
I have been quiet this summer.
I searched for the words to share my experience with you, but they got stuck in my head, stilling my hands on the keys. There were no words that seemed worthy, only an ocean of feelings, with me floating, a tiny speck on the surface, at the mercy of the current.
But every morning the invisible words appear again, dressed up as feelings, and they beat at my door. They pound my heart open. They ask me to write it.
In June, my younger brother died.
It was a quiet end to a dramatic life. That night, he drank too much, too fast. He fell asleep. He stopped breathing. He was gone. A graceful and merciful exit for an alcoholic.
He was my first best friend, my constant companion, my partner in crime. He was funny, fearless, playful, stubborn, sure of himself and relentlessly positive. He cherished his family and friends. He instantly loved strangers. His spirituality was at home in nature. His soul was constantly nourished by the sunrise over the sea.
When he was a senior in high school his life was forever changed. On a rainy night after a football game, there was a head-on collision. His two best friends died in the front seat as he was miraculously pulled out through an impossibly small window by strangers, moments before the car was engulfed in flames.
Although I was at college for most of his year in traction and during countless gruesome surgeries, my mother said he never complained - not once.
He doubled down on his relentless positivity and beaming smiles. At the end of most sentences and stories were joyful exclamations of “You can’t beat it in life!” “Everything’s okay!” and “Life’s good!”
His high school sweetheart became his wife and they had four beautiful kids. They built a life on true love, tough love, loyal love, forever love. His family posse was the light of his life.
Through the years, life dealt him more devastating blows, and the happy veneer began to dissolve, giving way to numbing. Alcohol took over with a vengeance and he spent years on the precipice of losing everything he held dear.
Sixteen sober years followed and the old joy made a comeback. It was a courageous run - a brave persistence reminiscent of his days as a cross-country runner. We all thought the race was over; that he had made it over the finish line.
He was cleaning out the garage one day and found a beer. With insidious nonchalance, alcohol made itself at home in him once again, and he never regained the upper hand.
Every life that intersects ours changes us forever. Every life. The best of my brother now lives on infinitely, rippling through the waters of his family, his friends, through everyone who knew him.
And I realize that he was one of my life’s greatest teachers. The hardest stuff tattoos us with the most indelible blessings.
In my search for meaning in this ocean of grief, I have unearthed some lessons that have sewn themselves together to become a little life raft. You are welcome to hop on.
1. IT’S ALWAYS POSSIBLE TO HOPE
Even in his darkest hours, he chose to find hope and to trust that something more beautiful was on the horizon. He believed with every ounce of his being that the sun would rise on a better day. We can all turn to face even one ray of hope and trust beyond what we can see.
2. OUR WEAKNESSES ARE OUR STRENGTHS
During all those years of AA meetings, he opened his heart to countless souls in need of connection and support. He spoke. He organized. He stayed after to take out the trash and clean the coffee machine in case anyone needed to talk. What we perceive to be our mistakes are often the doors to connection, service and higher love.
3. IF YOU CAN IMAGINE IT, YOU CAN BECOME IT
He enjoyed colorful careers as a lobster fisherman, a seafood rep, a deli owner, a day trader, a contractor and a master carpenter. He fearlessly reinvented himself. Everything is possible with passion and persistence.
4. LIVE IN CHILDLIKE WONDER
“To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Abraham Heschel’s words were a way of life for my brother. He moved through the day awed by the beauty that surrounded him. Everything looks brighter when we see the world through the eyes of gratitude and wonder.
5. LISTEN TO GUIDANCE
We get stubborn. We think we know. We want to do it our way. As one of his kids so wisely put it, sometimes the lesson is learning what not to do. When our beloveds are telling us we need help, we need to stop and listen. And take action.
6. FORGIVENESS MATTERS
By forgiving him and ourselves, we release the ties that bind us to the saddest parts of the story. We can forgive him for not being who we dreamed he might be. We can forgive ourselves for not saving a life that could not be saved. Forgiveness makes room for memories of love to take the helm.
7. HONOR THE GIFT OF TODAY
Tomorrow is not a given. Let’s be more loving today. Let’s recognize the precious nature of today. Let’s take steps toward our passion and purpose today. Let’s be kind today. Let’s slow down a little, lighten up a lot, and honor the gift of this moment.
Until we meet again, my memories will side with love, gratitude and joy as I remember the best of my first best friend.
He whispers this poem in my heart, reminding me that he is still here. Right here. Everywhere. Now and always. Always and forever.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
- Mary Elizabeth Frye
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