Monday, August 30, 2010

How Many Siblings Do You Have?

Last night was the first time since my brother's death that I got the question: "How many siblings do you have?"

I'd actually thought a lot about my answer (I have been told that it's not uncommon to burst into tears when someone asks that question, so I'm quite proud of myself for keeping it together). The whole numbers thing has been really difficult for me--do I still have 5 people in my family, or only 4? Do I still have 2 siblings, or only one?

I've been thinking about it a lot, and grappling with the -1 count to the family. Agonizing over the whole past/present thing. Which is the correct answer?
  1. I have a brother.
  2. I had a brother.
I'm such a stickler for grammar, it's actually rather ironic that the grammatical inconsistency of tense is what makes me feel most comfortable when talking about my brother. And it was sardonically funny that, after agonizing for so long over an answer, that it arrived so speedily when the question came:

"I have a brother. He passed away earlier this summer."

I have a brother. He may be corporeally missing from my life now, but he is still my brother who I got to spend almost 24 wonderful year with, and who lives on in all of our memories.

And I'll see him again one day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

An Aching Void

Mental health professionals say that a person who takes their own life is in such a dark place, they feel like they are causing their loved ones an unending amount of pain, and removing themselves from the picture will take away that pain.

In actuality, the void a person leaves (no matter how the death occurred) is gaping, aching, and incredibly painful. Even more painful is that there isn't really a way to heal or fill that void. Nobody can take the place of a lost loved one.

I sometimes feel like a piece of me died with my brother, or at least it went into hiding with his death. While I know that the void will probably remain forever, I hope that in time it will become, if not less gaping, less painful.

I wanted to relay something that was told to my family during shiva (I'm not sure exactly where the thought originates).

When one is leaving a shiva house, it is customary to recite this phrase to the mourners: Hamakom yenachem etchem b’toch sh’ar avaylay tzion v’yerushalayim; “May God comfort you among all of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” If you look at the Hebrew of this phrase, the word used for God here literally means “the place.” Of all of the ways in which to refer to God, why use that particular name? Why not dayan (judge), as we say when we hear that someone has died (baruch dayan ha'emet, blessed is the true judge)?

No matter the circumstance, when one has suffered the loss of a family member, there is a huge void that causes both emotional and physical pain and turmoil. Even with all of the comforting things people try to say, no one can fill that void. In such a hard time, God comforts the mourners, even just the tiniest sliver, by filling that painful place with his divine presence.

I'm not exactly sure what I think about this, but it sometimes offers me some small modicum of comfort.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Elephants in the Room

I think one of the most shocking things for me in the aftermath of my brother's suicide is the number of people in our community, even close friends, who have experienced the loss of a family member or someone they knew to suicide, but have never told anyone about it.

Suicide--or any mental illness for that matter--is a stigma in my community (as it is in many communities). Things are quickly and quietly swept under the rug, excuses are made, people move on. But in that cover-up is the implicit idea that a suicide or a mental illness is somehow the fault of the family, and it's just so shameful to talk about that it's better not to let anyone know.

It was never a question in my mind that we were going to tell people what happened. I come from an incredibly loving family, and we all loved my brother very much. There wasn't anything we did or didn't do that caused this tragedy. Mental illness, like any other illness, unfortunately sometimes results in death. My brother was sick, and he died because of his illness. The circumstances may have been different than someone dying from cancer, but it was an illness just the same.

During shiva, an old high school teacher of mine said to us: "I hope you know how brave you are. There are too many shiva houses in this community with elephants in the room."

I won't say it made me feel better, but it did reaffirm my resolve to be open and forthright about what happened. If you can't talk about it, you can't heal, end of story. My friends and my community have been nothing but supportive, with never the slightest inkling of "wow, what was wrong in that family?" I hope that my family's openness about mental illness and my brother's untimely death gives strength to anyone else who may need it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reality Shift

I'm someone I don't know.

It's a strange feeling, like I'm living someone else's life, or maybe watching a movie of an alternate reality. It's me, but it's not me. Things are foggy most of the time, like someone took a fine layer of gauze and just laid it over my vision. I'm sad, angry, and anxious a good part of the time I'm awake, and I'm pretty sure even while I'm sleeping (I haven't woken up feeling rested in a long time). I'm someone I don't know--what happened to the happy-go-lucky, optimistic person I used to be?

Everything has shifted. The world I knew is gone, and this new reality, this new me, is something I grapple with every day. In a thousand bad scenarios I played out in my head, losing my brother like this was never even a remote possibility. Unfathomable. Inconceivable. Incomprehensible.

I'm not me. This isn't my reality. Where do I go from here?