On December 11, 1997, my 9-year-old brother died suddenly from flu complications. His death was sudden and shocking — it shattered and shifted my whole world when I was just 7 years old.
In the years since, I have learned a lot about the never-ending process of losing a loved one.
I say “never-ending process” because I’ve learned that grief doesn’t work according to a timeline. Sadness comes and goes when it wants to — and there’s no completion date to this, none that I’ve seen anyway.
I’ve learned that grief is not neat. It is not predictable. It takes on different shapes and forms as you move through different stages of your life.
This year, as the world collectively grieves so much loss in this pandemic, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about grief in hopes of helping others feel a little less alone in all of this.
Millions of Americans are dealing with fresh grief right now, in one way or another.
The lucky ones have been grieving the loss of normalcy, the loss of human interaction, the loss of so many things that we have depended on to bring us joy.
And more than one million Americans are dealing with the recent loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. In fact, 2020 was the deadliest year in U.S. history.
That’s a lot of grief and death — in a country that is horrible at dealing with grief and death.
We’re one of the most depressed countries in the world, and yet, we have no idea how to talk about death.
Instead, we squirm, change the subject and avoid the real conversations that could actually help someone grieving.
I’ve noticed a lot of people are afraid of bringing up my brother in fear of upsetting me, when really, talking about him brings me comfort in knowing I’m doing something —anything — to keep his memory alive.
And I get it — grief is fragile and tough to talk about. Sometimes, the most harmless of questions can still leave me paralyzed, even after decades.
I still get the wind knocked out of me when I’m asked how many siblings I have. There is never an answer that feels right. If I tell the truth, it immediately saturates and saddens the conversation.
And it shouldn’t be like that. I shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about my brother’s death or briefly acknowledge it. Our society ostracizes those who are openly grieving, and it’s only hurting those who are already suffering.
In the years following my brother’s death, hundreds of people said hundreds of stupid things like “time heals everything” and “everything happens for a reason,” that just didn’t help, despite best intentions.
I’ve learned that there are so few things you can say to ease the pain of someone grieving, but there are so many things you can say to make them feel worse.
If you love someone who is grieving, the best thing you can do for them is listen, especially if you’ve never grieved before. Say you’ll be there for them, and mean it.
I’ve learned to be grateful — especially for the big brother who made me laugh every day I can remember for seven years. Thankful for the kid who was obsessed with Michael Jordan and loved singing “Semi-Charmed Life” in the car. The blonde with big, bright green eyes who punched a kid at recess for making fun of the girl he liked. The fourth grader who mastered the art of sweet-talking his way out of trouble. My big brother Michael who’d stick up for me and say “let her play” when the neighbors would say the game was “boys only.”
Those seven years I got with my brother were special — the true tragedy would have been if I never got that time with him at all.
I’ve learned there is no such thing as bargaining, but it’s OK to find and accept the good that has emerged from the tragedy — and it doesn’t mean you miss your loved one any less.
And while I would trade any aspect of my life to have him back, I know his death, caused by medical complications I still don’t fully understand, pushed me to be a better, tougher, and more courageous person, friend, partner and daughter.
I don’t think I would be a journalist pursuing the stories I do had it not been for the death of my brother.
His death taught me to be fearless. Whenever I’m convincing myself to be brave, I remind myself of how much I’ve been through and suddenly, most things aren’t so scary.
And finally, I’ve learned that grief gets better. For 21 years, I really hated Christmas. My brother died two weeks before the holiday and everything about the whole season triggered and traumatized me —until I met my partner David five days after Christmas in 2018. David has helped me move past my pain, and see the same joy and spark so many others share in the holiday season.
I learned too young that life is short and how important it is to squeeze memories out of days because one day you’ll look back and realize the photos and flashbacks from those moments are finite, and sometimes they’re all you have to hold on to.
So I can’t stress this enough — love often and love hard. Show up when it counts. Take big risks. Look alive, and for God’s sake, laugh like you mean it.
Make your moves knowing it could all change in an instant.
Trust me, it can.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to email@example.com.
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