A Definitive Guide on How to Grieve
Spoiler: there's no perfect way
It was exactly a month before my 18th birthday when my brother got shot. 2 AM on the 1st of March we had police officers knocking on our front door. We were told no specifics, given no piece of mind. My mother sobbed while driving to the hospital. I looked out the window, praying that it wasn’t the end. It couldn’t be the end.
We had no idea about where he got shot or what type of condition he was in. So when a doctor came out to tell us that they couldn’t salvage his ring finger, I said, “yeah, but is he alive?” He was shocked that no one had come to us earlier.
Thus began the 18-month journey of nursing my older brother back to health, or whatever healthy was for him after his accident. He was accidentally shot in the lower abdomen by his best friend’s father who drunkenly forgot there was a bullet in the chamber. The bullet ricocheted off of his finger, changed direction, and went through one of his femoral arteries. He should have bled out. He was referred to as a medical miracle by every doctor he came in contact with. But what good was that if he could never run again? He was in the hospital for a month, a rehab center for another month, and was unable to walk for a month at home. This was the biggest challenge of his life. By association, I thought that this would be the biggest challenge of my life as well.
I was wrong.
It was exactly one week before I moved back to school my Sophomore year when my brother’s heart stopped. It was a characteristically hot August day, with the temperature reaching over 100 degrees. I didn’t even care to say goodbye to my brother on my way to work that morning. I was mad at him for eating some cookies I baked for my coworkers the night before. I was the last person to see him alive.
I was the first family member to arrive at the hospital the second time around. This time I wasn’t worried. From what the police officer told me over the phone, it seemed as though he had fell while taking his usual neighborhood walk. I assumed I would see him joking with the doctors in the emergency room. Instead, I watched him, lifeless, as doctors rushed past and told me the probability of him making it past this was minimal.
He was pronounced brain dead 2 days later. According to the medical examiner, he had an enlarged heart. When he was exerting himself to walk around on the hot August day, smoking a cigarette and sweating through his sweatshirt he was too stubborn to take off, his heart stopped. By the time the ambulance got there, the oxygen deprivation caused irreversible brain damage. We buried him in my hometown of Bridgewater, New Jersey on a Wednesday morning. I was back at Delaware on Thursday afternoon. My ability to cope was unnerving and uncomfortable for my family members and friends. My brother just died and I was taking exams and drinking with friends rather than sobbing every night in my bedroom.
I realized through this traumatic event that grief is not uniform. For my mother, the first few months were hard. She cried every day, and spent most nights in my brother’s room, sobbing and listening to his favorite songs on repeat. My father is still struggling with the fact that my brother died thinking that he didn’t love him. He was emotionally abusive, consistently calling my brother ‘useless’ and ‘pathetic’ and telling him that he would never amount to anything. Now he goes to my aunt’s house all the time to play with his nephews. I sometimes wonder if he’s trying to replace my brother with them and fix the mistakes he made the first 2 times.
I chose instead to channel my grief into something productive. I became obsessed with the idea that I had to do something to keep him in my life for the rest of it. My mind began wandering to the sad fact that so many of my brother’s life goals were left unfulfilled. He was working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and working everyday to get himself back in shape after his accident. He wanted to move to Texas once he was able to live independently.
After my classes one day, I pulled out an old leather notebook my parents had gotten me when I graduated high school. I jotted all the tasks I could think of that my brother wanted to do before he died. I titled it "The Posthumous Bucket List." I let out a breath of air that I hadn’t realized I was holding since my brother’s funeral and leaned back in my chair. I finally figured out what to do to keep my brother with me wherever I went. I was going to live out my brother’s dreams for him.
When I addressed my idea with my parents, they weren’t as enthusiastic as I expected them to be. What I saw as a way to productively grieve, they saw as giving up my individuality in order to fit a mold of my brother. They couldn’t understand that I was going to be doing these tasks because I wanted to, not to turn into my brother. But I decided to do it anyways, without their approval. It is the only major thing I’ve done without it.
It has been over two years since I wrote up the bucket list. I saw Chance the Rapper and Jon Bellion in concert, two of my brother’s favorite artists. I got my first tattoo, my brother’s initials on the inside of my ring finger, because my brother always wanted one. I finished the Game of Thrones series, his favorite show, and I earned my Bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology from the University of Delaware two months ago. I have even lost over 40 pounds—the goal to get back in shape topping the list. When I began completing each task, I was doing it to fulfill a dream of my brother’s. By the time I finished completing these tasks I realized that I had molded them and made them my own.
I began doing this bucket list as a way to keep my brother in my life. But now each task enriches my life and leaves me with my own unique experiences. This was my way to grieve and make the best of the tragedy that had happened. The concept that took me years to grasp is that no two people grieve the same. You can’t judge someone’s grieving process. You can’t base the impact that someone had on someone else’s life by how long they were outwardly upset for after they are gone. Just because I am not sad does not mean that I am not grieving.