The day after my brother died, I started writing everything pertaining to him and his death in a blank book. Much of what I recorded is practical information ranging from insurance agent emails to funeral director phone numbers. The rest is a jumble of things I want to remember, such as names of Frank's friends and titles of books people have recommended. Within this jumble is a list of people I know who have lost a sibling. I was compelled to generate this list -- and I continue to maintain it, because it is growing as time goes on.
My loss has connected me to the people on this list instantly and intensely. Many had lost a sibling before I did, and revealed their experiences to me following my brother's death. Their communications served as a sort of "new member initiation" for me into this club that I can't imagine anyone would choose to join.
People who have been through a life-altering loss often find themselves seeking others who "get" them, usually people who've suffered a similar loss. My brother's death smacked me down with a force I could not have imagined. Stumbling around in the landscape of grief, I wanted to find compatriots who could help me find my way, people from whom I could accept the phrase "I know what you mean" because of what they had been through. Those people are on that list and in my life, and they have supported me from a place of raw experience, accompanying me as I walk my random path all over the landscape.
Sometimes, though, I've had a burning question that demanded I talk to someone who matched up with me in a particular way. If I wanted advice on how to help my brother's kids, I wouldn't consult someone who lost a sibling as a child. If I was trying to process my feelings about the drunk driver who killed my brother, I might not call a friend who lost a sibling to cancer. At times like these I try to narrow down to people who have the most in common with my unique, individual, once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances. I journey inward through concentric circles with the goal of arriving at the smallest subset, a tiny tribe where all I'm going through is shared and understood.
First I think of people who have grieved a tough loss. Then of people who had lost a family member. Then people who had lost a sibling. But there is still a wide variety of experience there, which means I have to narrow down further to sets of people who...
Lost an adult sibling.
Lost an adult brother.
Lost an adult brother who was the only sibling.
Lost an adult brother who was the only sibling, and he had a spouse and children.
Lost an adult brother who was the only sibling, and he had a spouse and children, and our parents are still living.
And on and on until I get down to the final tiny circle:
Lost an adult brother who was my younger and only sibling, with parents still living, and we got along well, and we worked in the same industry, and he lived far away, and he had a spouse and children, and his death was sudden, and he was killed on impact in a car crash, and the crash was the fault of the other driver, and the other driver was driving on the wrong side of the road, severely impaired with both alcohol and drugs in his system.
(Inspiration for the circles is from the excellent "ring theory, or how not to say the wrong thing" article found here.)
The thing is, when I adhere to every specific requirement for initiation into the tiny club I've joined, it ends up that I am the only member. I am terribly, utterly alone. There is no one who shares every detail of my experience. Even if I had another sibling, I imagine that sibling and I would have a different experience of the loss of our brother.
What do you do, then, when you get your exclusive club set up and find yourself alone at the meeting? Well, I found I had to turn back away from the center and expand the requirements. I had to crawl step by step into the progressively bigger circles, stopping at each circle to see if I could get what I needed. That journey back reminded me that I was a member of every club that I passed through on the way in, connecting me again with progressively more and more compatriots, each supporting me from whatever mutual understanding we had.
I know people who have lost a sibling, some who have lost a brother, a few a younger brother. I know people who have lost their only sibling. I know people who have lost a loved one in a car crash. I know people who have lost siblings they were close to, adult siblings, siblings who had families. But everyone's experience differs from mine in some way. Some lost a parent or a child, not a sibling, in a wreck. Some lost a sibling from a slow and agonizing battle with cancer. Some lost a loved one suddenly, as I did, but to homicide or suicide. Some lost siblings they weren't that close to, or who didn't have families, or who were children or teenagers when they died. But we all can meet somewhere in the circles. We can connect on some level.
Sometimes I do still feel utterly alone. And sometimes I need to talk to those few people whose experience most closely resembles mine. But I know how many levels of connection wait for me to discover whenever I need them. If I move far enough through the circles, to the circle of people who have lost a loved one and even to the outer circle encompassing everyone having a human experience of life, I find that I am completely connected.
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This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.
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