My younger brother died unexpectedly on Mother’s Day 2020. My mom called me before I got to the hospital and told me he was gone but that I had to keep it together and stay strong for his wife. Mom wasn’t crying when she told me and her words didn’t sink in, despite having heard them clearly.
The following weeks brought the heaviest sadness I’ve ever known. I didn’t cry in front of the multitude of people who filled my parents’ house each day, but when I was alone I broke down. Sleep wasn’t a thing anymore, and I spent the nights and early mornings in bed sobbing. I cycled through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – faster than I go through boyfriends (which if you don’t know me is really fast ba tum tss). The stages of grief are in a specific order for a reason. It’s the order that I’ve experienced them in, only for me it’s been cyclical instead of points along a straight timeline, which means the last stage, acceptance, is followed by the first stage, denial.
That’s a wild ride. Accepting one minute that your healthy, happy, bigger than life little brother is gone for forever and then just a moment later denying the possibility that he could have died because his heart stopped doing its job can cause whiplash. It’s that pinnacle, that turning point (not the correct phrase, there isn’t a turning point in a cycle), that begin-again moment that takes me to my knees.
Matt was always the “problem” child. Problem as in he had a heart condition, childhood seizures, the weakest ankles in the game, two open heart surgeries, IBS probably, and a type one diabetic wife. (Not putting him on blast here, Matt wasn’t shy and he would talk to anyone about his bowel troubles if they were willing.) But for as much as that kid endured, he took it in stride.
He always smiled. He had this big goofy grin and laid back nature that made him so easy to get along with. Matt was the most genuine person who encouraged his peers and made people feel like he really cared about them. And that’s because he did. He found his calling in medicine. Too shaky handed to be a surgeon, he opted for pharmacy school where he knew he’d have a big impact. He wanted to help people. He wanted to do good. Matt was the definition of a people person. Wherever he and Sam went, he was bound to know and talk to at least five people. He remembered everyone and said hi to them all, asked how they’d been. He loved life, the one he had and the one he was building.
And then one Sunday night he went for a run. He headed back inside after just a mile because it was cold. While standing in his kitchen, his heart got into a lethal arrhythmia and he collapsed. Despite EMS arriving eight minutes, he never woke up. He was 24 years old. He was married to his best friend for seven and a half months. He was two years into pharmacy school. He was looking at houses online and driving through the swanky neighborhoods of Louisville with Samantha talking about one day.
It all weighs on me heavy, you know. Acceptance. “Matt’s gone forever.” Ok, yeah. Heart problems, an early and untimely death. Sure. I can spout off the events of that night like I’m telling a story about an ex-boyfriend who I don’t hate. Factual, without emotion. I don’t get choked up when people hug me, and trust me, a lot of people have hugged me. The fact that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic has been lost on us. Is that insensitive and not cool? Maybe. Have people had to be separated from their dying loved ones and not been able to hold funeral services because of coronavirus restrictions? Yes. Do I care? Not really. Take me out, rona. I’m done with this shit.
There’s no way I can live in this world without my brother. It’s not real, it doesn’t feel real. I still feel numb at times a month and a half later. (Here’s the denial.) I’m pissed that I have to live in this world without him. (And the anger.) I existed on this earth for 20 months before he was born and I wasn’t supposed to have to start the count of “time without Matthew” again for like 50 more years, if ever. It’s not fair. He was good. Why not me? Why not someone less good? Why not someone with bad intentions? Even people Matt actively avoided thought the world of him because he treated them like he treated everyone else, which is to say better than they deserved (my opinion, not his).
The bargaining comes in the form of offering to take his place. Begging to have just one more afternoon with him, one more hug, sing one more song together, one more boat ride. Promising that I’ll be any type of person the higher being wants me to be if we can just have Matt back. So far the messages I’ve left with God’s office have gone unreturned.
The depression is constant. It sits heavy in my chest, sometimes shrinking and hiding behind my ribs, but mostly it’s overwhelming and huge. I don’t quite understand how depression is one stage instead of listed at the top with an asterisk that says “this exists through all the stages and it never goes away.” Even when I step in to acceptance (usually briefly, but it happens), I’m still overwhelmingly sad. Matt is my younger brother but he’s also one of my best friends. People frequently told us how nice it is to see siblings who care so much about one another. The fact that he’s gone from this world for as long as I’ll continue living in it is too big a hurt to comprehend.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience it’s that people who have lost a loved one don’t want that person to be forgotten. Talking about him and what happened will always be better than pretending he didn’t die or worse that he didn’t exist at all. The memories people have of him are what will keep us going in the coming months and years so please share them with us if you have them. Talking about him won’t make me sadder than I already am and if I don’t want to hear it I’ll say so. The death of a sibling isn't something you just get over. I'll carry this grief with me for the rest of my life, until it's time for me to see him again.