He had Type 1 diabetes and epilepsy, both diagnosed in adolescence. Managing the two conditions involved an abstinence from sugar, alcohol and late nights that few teenagers would appreciate, and a finicky daily mix of pills and injections in dosages he kept growing out of.
We would rush him to the hospital in a dazed or unconscious state, due to either a grand mal seizure or a perilously steep drop in his blood sugar. This process never ceased to be frightening for how routine it became.
By the time Alex was 20, things had mellowed. He was living away from home for the first time and had been seizure-free for some months—a crucial condition if he was ever going to get his driver’s license or take a trip overseas. One night he ran out of his epilepsy medication but told my mother over the phone not to worry – he’d be fine and would stock up the following day. When she visited in the morning, the police were there to tell her he’d died in the early hours after a violent seizure.
I found a therapist just a few months after Alex’s death. I was studying literature at university, so she recommended a book: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying, which is where we get the popular theory about the five stages of grief.
The first chapters offered a cerebral comfort. I learned that in the developed world, death has become so foreign that we don’t know how to process it. I remember an anecdote about simpler times, when a man who fell off a ladder and hit his head lay dying in his own home, surrounded by family, versus the image of a sterile hospital ward.
My therapist explained that my interrupted sleep was due to hypervigilance, a condition common in soldiers. Even in your sleep you are listening for an emergency. You wake easily, and then you’re anxious. I would get to sleep late, and reliably wake around four in the morning, when Alex might have been having a seizure. Then maybe I’d fall asleep for one more precious hour, or maybe lie there until my alarm went off. During the day I’d get upset that I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and at night I’d get anxious about falling asleep because I wanted it so much.
We scratched the surface of a sadness I would only be able to explore years later. After a few sessions, I felt I’d gotten enough from the therapy and didn’t make another appointment.
I CENSORED MY RECOLLECTIONS OF ALEX’S DEATH WHENEVER THE SUBJECT AROSE.<
Even in those solicitous conversations, perhaps after a few glasses of wine, with someone who might also have lost a loved one, I would shake my head at the memory of that four-hour plane ride back home from the city where I lived, and say just that it was the worst day of my life.
It remains the worst day of my life, although I have a more detailed picture of it now. The flight was full and I sat in the middle of the row. My pain was so sharp that I tried to block it out completely by watching a cheesy movie, but it would surge up in me and I’d go into the toilets and brace myself against the sink and sob and sob. Once when I came back to my seat the woman next to me told me softly that whatever I was going through, she hoped I would find a way through it and be okay.
I couldn’t tell her my brother had died that morning without becoming hysterical, and for some reason this mattered, so I nodded and huddled in my seat and wished the flight would end.
I haven’t described for anyone those first few days of funeral arrangements. In the funeral home, alone, I pulled back the muslin cloth they’d draped across Alex’s casket, and looking at his face I felt an incredulity I’d never felt before and haven’t felt since.
I called my old school friends and asked them to come to the funeral. I wrote a speech and read it aloud to hundreds of people, the people of his young adulthood whom I didn’t know but who loved him. I spent time at home with my family. My brother’s childhood friends visited and we all silently drank beer together.
THERE WERE BLACKLY COMIC MOMENTS.
Unlike those other legendary family tales that seem so desperate in the moment – a broken arm, a volcanic tantrum – these memories haven’t become funny with time. My boyfriend’s car had its last breakdown as he drove me to the airport, and we had to abandon it for a cab. The casket my mother arranged for the funeral was decorated colorfully with my brother’s beloved South Park characters, painted by a company called Dying Art. The details that have stayed with me don’t soften; they’re resolutely bleak.
In the ensuing months, I tried to readjust to the life I’d created in a city far from home, with this new identity: the bereaved sibling. I didn’t know what else to do but continue as before. I studied, returned to rehearsals for the play I was performing in, and eventually went back to my part-time job as a theater usher. One night a colleague confided that she knew how I felt because she’d lost her cat, and though some people might not think that was a big deal, she felt like she’d lost a part of herself.
I graduated the following year, then went on a five-month backpacking trip around Europe which would put me in debt for years. On my return I moved with three friends into the most rundown house I’d ever lived in, and spent a blithe couple of years working in a customer service job and riding my bicycle between parties on the weekends.
At some stage I began telling anyone who asked that my brother’s death was part of my life now. I was no longer reeling. I went about my days and the time lengthened between those moments of acute sadness.
Nearly four years after Alex’s death I found myself so overwhelmed with negative thoughts and fatigue and helplessness that I realized I needed to talk to a professional, and so I found another therapist.
Gradually my new therapist found the root of my anxieties in a childhood that was unstable despite the best efforts of my parents. We examined a grief complicated by a troubled family history. For the first time I had what felt like an objective insight into the workings of my family, and I began to understand why I’d made the kinds of decisions I had. In the most profound mental development since my first words, I learned not to identify with my thoughts.
IT WAS 2011, AND THE CONCEPT OF MINDFULNESS WAS JUST ABOUT TO BOOM.
Soon advertising campaigns for everything from cereal to insurance policies would feature women in crop tops in the lotus position, smiling serenely. But my therapist directed me to some modern Buddhist writings, and although I still have an inner teenager who grimaces when someone mentions loving kindness or being present, I credit mindfulness with allowing the relative mental health I now enjoy.
Here was a practice that didn’t diminish my experience by denying it or analyzing it. Instead, mindfulness taught me: people are in all kinds of pain. It is not helpful to compare one person’s pain to another’s, and it is not helpful to try to escape pain. The thing to do is to treat oneself and others with kindness and compassion, to acknowledge that pain is part of life and realize that I could live with it without letting it define or consume me, and also to try to be present, or avoid “numbing out,” whether things are sunny or terrible.
That last one has offered me some perspective and helped me to sort out the things I need to change from the things I can accept and live with, rather than forever oscillating between fretting and fixing.
These radical changes were mostly to do with my outlook, but I remain a dilettante. I meditate for a few days in a row every month or so before letting other priorities take over, even though a daily practice has been my ambition for the last four years. In my healthiest periods I take yoga classes two or three times a week, and then months go by in an asana-free haze. The difference is, I forgive myself more readily now for my human weaknesses, which I think becomes especially necessary when grief enters the picture.