I can still relive that moment like it happened 5 minutes ago. My vision went black. My legs gave out beneath me and I hit the cold ground on that cold October afternoon. My heart actually stopped for a moment and I struggled to get my lungs to fill with air. 3 words, spoken via telephone from my Mother, changed my entire world forever.
Daniel is dead.
Daniel was my brother. Daniel IS my brother. He was only 3 months older than I and joined my life with my parents adopted him at the age of 19 months. From that first day we were inseparable. My parents called us their twins. In fact, our family Dr was so impressed that we behaved like actual twins without being biologically twins that we had special testing done when we were toddlers. We had our own spoken language and an emotional, almost telepathic connection, that even into adulthood, we could read each other’s thoughts and I knew, intuitively, when he was in trouble and needed me.
He was my first friend. My best friend. The one person in the world who had lived my history step for step. And yet we were very different, he and I. Daniel was all dare. He ran at life with 150%, full-bore all the time. I am more conservative, more calculated and less impulsive. I played by the rules and coloured inside the lines, while Daniel spent his life breaking rules and smudging lines
At about 15 Daniel started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in a major way. This lead to a downward spiral that lasted almost 20 years. It was the beginning of a dance that he and I performed back and forth for most of our adult lives. He used and I enabled by constantly rescuing. I paid his drug debts (one time at gun point when his dealer came to my home). He stole my jewelry to pawn. I paid for his detox and rehab programs – I truly lost count but I believe it was at least 6 times.
My addiction to rescuing him was as strong as his addiction to use drugs and alcohol – and both did so to mask our pain. And in the deep recesses of my heart I guess I always knew that things would end up this way. I would ultimately lose him to “the life”, but I battled on, hoping that I could choose the ending to our story.
But it ended with a casket opened to show only his hands. Daniel had been murdered. His death had been so violent that I said my good-byes to his folded hands alone. Hands visibly broken and bruised in the final fight of his life. He died in an abandoned home with $40 in his pockets on October 8, 2011, beaten to death with a table leg.
Grief is powerful son-of-a-bitch, I cannot lie. I have read many articles describing grief like waves of the ocean – tossing you to and fro. I feel like grief is more like an offensive linebacker from the NFL running full force into your chest again and again. You barely catch your breath from the last hit and another comes along.
The months following Dan’s death are a black hole of nothingness for me. My therapist suggests that I have acute PTSD from the trauma. And no matter what terms you use to describe it, this feeling is different than anything else I have ever known. It’s not like depression that makes you feel sort of empty and numb – this is like every feeling that you’ve ever had compacted right into your chest and you have to fight to just stay sane. The world completely changes. You see, feel, taste, smell and hear everything differently.
People use clichés and “sayings” to try to make you feel better. They have told me that “this too shall pass” and “grief is the price of love” and “Maybe this is for the best!” People aren’t trying to be jerks, they just don’t know what to say, so you accept their platitudes and thank them for their thoughts and prayers and move back into the isolated corners of your heart alone to grieve.
It’s true that time helps a bit – 5 years on and I can function to a degree. The overwhelming nightmarish feelings do come at greater intervals now, but they never “pass”. I have gone from quite literally not functioning from the pain to only stopping two or three times each day to lean against a solid object, trying to remain on my feet, for the punch I have just taken to the chest.
Grief arrives in odd packages, too. Sometimes it’s a smell or a song that pulls a memory to the surface. Yesterday, it was an episode of the Muppet Show I watched with my 8 year old son. I remembered watching it with my Daniel – that exact same episode and laughing, innocently, never imagining how our futures would unfold.
And when I started to weep yesterday at Chris Kristofferson singing with Miss Piggy my 8 year old knew why. “Does this remind you of Uncle Dan, Mom?”
That’s what grief does. It attaches to you in ways you can’t imagine. It takes on forms and essence that you can’t predict. It’s a deep, deep wounding of your soul and yes, that wound will eventually scab over and become a scar, but that scar will forever remain. Grief becomes you – a part of you – inside you but separate – almost like an artificial limb. It’s you, but not you. Like barnacles on a ship or moss on a rock – grief is just there, along for the rest of the ride.
Grief, like any injury, changes us. I will never be the same for losing him. Part of who I am – part of my past, part of my future – that all died with him. I saw all our good times and all our struggles laid beside him on the crocheted blanket from my Aunt that day in his casket. I saw the playful antics of our childhood and my hopes of our shared future laying murdered right beside him. Who I was and who I could have been died with him. I saw the brother I nick-named Beaver Boy with his arms sweetly around my neck in my favorite photograph from our childhood. I saw the struggling adolescent who was so bullied in high school that I punched a 6 foot 3 quarterback on the football team trying to come to his aid. I saw the addict, covered in street-sores, with shoes that didn’t fit in filthy clothes detoxing in the living room of my house while I sat up all night watching so he didn’t hurt himself. I saw the man, with demons in his eyes, but tremendous love in his soul, hug me one last time the day I knew in my heart would be the last time I ever saw him. I saw our shared history vanish before my eyes and all I could do was stand there stating out loud for the empty funeral hall to hear that I was sorry, that I had failed him, that I would have traded places, that I would have made him better if I could.
But I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. I wanted to hold his hand just one more time. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bare the thought of lifeless flesh being what I remembered, so I kept his urn in my living room for almost a year. When no one was around I held it, and rocked it and told all that I had left of him how sorry I was that I didn’t touch him just one more time. And finally my family convinced me to place his urn in a niche and “let him go” because holding on is “unhealthy” and “it’s just time Dee, it’s just time.” It didn’t feel like it was time to me.
I have heard it said that what we, as humans, want most in life is someone to validate our existence, to witness our journey for us. Loss robs us of that validation. A witness to my journey is gone and what he took with him will never be restored to me. I can never get back that moment when all I had to do was reach out and touch his hand, but I couldn’t do it.
It’s been 5 years this weekend and here is what I have learned so far: Grief does not get easier. It doesn’t get better. You just eventually get used to the feeling of that linebacker ramming at your chest and you get better able to control your physical response to it. You get used to your chest being ripped open and your soul laid bare. You get used to that mental picture of his battered hands folded neatly on his stomach. And you hold desperately tight to the memory of his voice saying, “I love you, Dippy”
Grief doesn’t get easier. You get tougher.