I had a vision in the early moments after learning of my brother’s death. I sat on the concrete stoop outside my home, vibrating with shock, waiting for friends to come and pick me up. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned an empty space between two worlds — Before and After.
I could still glimpse the shore of Before: my life a mere hour earlier, before my mom called to tell me my 21-year-old brother Will had been found dead.
Somewhere in the distance hung the world of After — a place where my brother’s death might feel real, less like an awful dream. After would be the planet my remaining family and I would soon belong to. It was a place where we’d be shattered, sprained, and someday, perhaps, healing.
In those thick moments of shock, I belonged to neither world. I floated somewhere in-between, in a dank, thin-aired chasm.
For years, when I’ve written about this moment of dangling between Before and After, I’ve superimposed a bridge onto the image. Here, I say to the girl still perched on the cool, hard stoop, this is the bridge you will walk. This is how you will get from Before to After. One tiny step at a time.
But I was wrong. The thing about bridges is that they end. At some point, they always rejoin solid land. They eject you. A bridge is not a place to stay, it’s not a home. It’s a journey, with a clear destination.
In some ways, perhaps I did cross a bridge. Or hundreds of bridges, of varying lengths and incline. There was some foggy first day where I didn’t cry. A morning, hanging somewhere in time, when I woke up and Will’s death wasn’t the first thought to cross my mind. As I slid through time, as months and years began to stack up, and I realized I could no longer remember his voice. When pictures of him began to surprise me, because in my memory, his jaw was less defined, his face more childlike. As I became a wife. A mother to a boy with blue eyes so like my brother’s that in dreams the two sometimes coil together, entwined, and to a girl who, like my brother did, brims with light.
But in other ways, grief is not a bridge we cross. It’s not that tidy. My brother’s death — and other losses, too, but his was the one that split my world open, that remade me — remains present. It’s a spine the length of my life, and I circle around it, spiraling up. In the early days, I spun closely to the sacrum, my mind and heart crashing against the arced bones. How impossible the climb ahead seemed.
Now, some days I barely think of him. Other times, like the weeks and months after my dad died, I again orbit closely around his absence, the air in my lungs thick with him. There are days when I still wish him back. When I feel sorry for myself, so unbrothered. As I move forward and up, along the curve of vertebrae, the threads of fascia, it hurts in new and different ways.
The other day, on the 22nd anniversary of his death, I cried for him. He’s been gone longer than he was here. And yet, I still miss him. How impossibly young we’d been. I searched for him in the sky, in the trickles of sunlight, in the sudden warmth of spring. I spun close to the center of his loss. Again.
If my grief has a shape, it’s a spiral. The shape of our shared DNA. Of a hurricane, a fingerprint, a pine cone. Sometimes I drift far from the center of it. Other times it feels fire-close. When my dad was dying, I sometimes allowed myself to imagine my brother with us, accompanying my mom and I in a third chair alongside our dad’s bed. I flung myself, if only briefly, privately, to yet another planet. Not Before or After, but What If?
Love seems to shatter the construct of time. When we’ve loved someone, we don’t tend to stop loving them, no matter how much time has passed.
Grief is just love, plus absence.
These losses we bear become part of us. They reside within us, in the same way fetal cells burrow and float through mothers, months, years, decades after a child is born. A mother doesn’t cease being a mother when her children are grown or middle-aged or old. The people we love are imprinted upon us. They course through us.
If we allow them the space, they exist. Our relationships stretch and grow through time, evolving, helixing. Continuing.
The other night, in the middle of her bedtime meditation, my daughter surprised me. “I just realized something,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked. I tried to pull back the frustration in my voice. She’s nine, but for years now, she often gets a wild burst of energy just as it’s time to wind down, just as my patience is at its most frayed.
“You know how at the beginning of my group, we light a candle for the person who died?” she asked. A few hours earlier, she’d attended the grief group for children that she’s been a part of since my dad died, nearly two years ago now.
“Yes,” I said, turning onto my side to face her.
“I just realized I could put Will in the candle, too,” she said.
The frustration drained away, and I pressed my hand to my heart.
“That’s so sweet,” I said.
A few months earlier, I’d had a similar moment with my son, a moment where it felt like the love I still have for my brother was palpable and transmittable, something timeless that could coil and spin through generations. I pressed my lips to the side of my daughter’s head, just past the whorl of hair on her crown.
My daughter, like my son, has never met my brother. And yet he exists for her, because he still exists for me. She doesn’t possess the full-sensory version of him — the sound of his voice or his heavy walk or the smell of his hair — like bark and rain. But she knows something of him, or his essence: a prayer, a whisper, a tendril. She knows enough of him to realize she could offer him to the light.