September leaves me swimming in grief. Do not get me wrong, time does dull the pain, but I still miss my brother as much now as I did 7 years ago. The way grief feels over time changes, but it never goes away, and it never feels “healed”. I say it is never healed, because as a human being, I want it to go completely away. As a clinician, I know that is not realistic. Grief, for me, holds so many complicated moving parts that it is like trying to describe what “normal” is. Nobody really knows what normal is and nobody really understands grief entirely until they experience it. So, what I am attempting to do here in this very personal story, is explain what grief has been like for me. I hope that some will be able to relate and for others it might help you understand what your loved ones or friends are experiencing.
My little brother’s birthday is September 6th. He would have been 41 this year. Not only is his birthday September 6th, but his accident happened September 23, 2011 and he passed away on September 25, 2011. Two days. Two days of shock, and pain, confusion, and praying, begging and pleading with God, then ultimately turning him over to God. The grief, unlike anything I have experienced before was deep as the ocean. Grief really is not an adequate word for it either. Sorrow and despair is more fitting.
I got the call in the wee hours of a Friday morning. I was getting myself ready for work before waking up my kids for school. My mom was frantic, “Angie, we’re on our way to Wichita. Danny is being med-flighted to the hospital. Dad found him at the bottom of the basement stairs. He somehow fell and hit the back of his head. We’re not sure how long he was there. It’s very serious. We’re not sure if he’s going to make it.”
My head was swimming in confusion and fear. All I could think was, “I have to get there”. I did get there. I called my husband. We made sure the kids were taken care of and we were there several hours later. What I walked into was a horrific scene. Not horrific as in violent, but horrific in that it was terrifying and hard to understand. My brain was on overdrive. My husband and I got off the elevator and immediately noticed that the waiting room and hallway was full of people. All of my brother’s family and friends were here. Everyone was scared. I was taken right away to my brother who was in ICU. He was hooked up to all kinds of machines that were constantly measuring his vitals. One number in particular everyone was watching closely. It was measuring the temperature related to his brain hemorrhaging. I immediately focused on my brother and everyone let me through.
It was heart wrenching. I was the last to arrive because I lived the furthest away. I sat on the bed right next to him, touched his arm, and told him “Sis is here. I’m sorry it took me so long”. He was completely unresponsive and I knew it was bad. I just sat there and looked at him with tears rolling down my cheeks. My little brother, this tall, muscular man, laying completely helpless and unconscious in a hospital ICU room. I was given a little privacy and walked behind his bed to see the skull fracture. I immediately started asking lots of questions. How did this happen? How does somebody fall straight back onto the back of their head? I found out later that he had been very intoxicated on multiple substances. He was staying at my parent’s house for a few days and was sleeping in the basement. Nothing could be done except sit, wait, and pray. And that’s what we did. It was excruciating. After being there for several hours we started getting more information from the medical professionals. The prognosis was not good. The left hemisphere of his brain had already shut down. I knew then that he probably would not live and even if he did he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. You cannot live a normal life with just the right hemisphere of your brain. Danny had fallen straight back and fractured the thickest part of his skull. This area is very difficult to fracture and it was severe. His brain was hemorrhaging and swelling slowly. He was dying.
I cannot adequately describe to you how this felt. I started going through all the typical stages of grief…shock and denial…anger…bargaining with God…depression…like a roller coaster, and sometimes all of them in the matter of minutes. I did not reach the final stage of acceptance until about 36 hours later in the middle of the night. Earlier that evening, which was Saturday night, the nurse coordinator for the organ donor program met with us in a conference room down the hall. My brother had expressed interest just days before of wanting to donate his organs if anything ever happened to him. It was such a surreal experience that once again I cannot properly describe it. I am sitting in a small room with my husband, my parents and my sister in-law. We are answering all kinds of questions about my brother’s life, things he had done, his health, scars, all the health problems he’d ever had…everything.
I felt incredibly confused. I was so sad that we were having this discussion. I was angry because he was still breathing right down the hall. I was shocked that we were even there. After that meeting I could not wait at the hospital anymore. I said goodbye to my brother and checked into the hotel across the street. I was exhausted. I had a hard time going to sleep and when I did I kept waking up in a fit of sobbing, rolling over to check my phone to see if anyone had called to tell me he was gone. This went on for hours. I finally got tired of this roller coaster and locked myself in the bathroom so I wouldn’t wake my husband up crying. I spent a long time on my knees praying for a miracle and then finally realizing I needed to just give my brother up to God. I eventually got the call that he was gone, somewhere around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
The next few weeks are real fuzzy. I cannot tell you what I did. I could not work. People from church brought us meals. I could not eat or sleep. I could not watch tv or listen to music. My world just felt empty and silent. I remember one day a friend came over to check on me. She made me go outside and sit on the porch when she realized I had not been out of the house at all for days. When I stepped outside it was bright and sunny. I sat down on the porch swing and watched cars drive by. I had the most bizarre and surreal experience. I remember thinking, “why is the sun shining so brightly? My brother is dead. Look at all these people driving somewhere. Don’t they know my brother is dead?” I know it sounds weird, but I was genuinely surprised that the world had not stopped. It was just me that stopped. The hole inside was enormous. I felt like my heart was in a vice grip. Not in a heart attack sort of way, but in a broken heart sort of way. My heart was broken into a million pieces and it would never feel the same again. I was confident I would not be able to function normal ever again. A piece of me was gone forever.
Eventually I was able to go back to work and I was different. Before all this happened I was a stubborn, strong personality who rarely showed emotion. Years of my own addiction left me with shut down feelings. Yes, I was a therapist. Yes, I encouraged people to work through their feelings, and I was comfortable with other people expressing emotion, but I personally had not embraced my own. After my brother died all my defenses were gone. I could not hold it together anymore. I could not hide my emotion or keep myself from crying. I cried every day for at least a year. Many days I cried several times a day. I had somehow reached the very end of myself and felt emotionally raw, vulnerable in a way I had never been before, scared, and confused. I went through spells where I could not tolerate any sound at all. I would drive to work in complete silence. I quit reading. I was not interested in anything on tv. I lost interest in food. I did not exercise. I had no words when I tried to pray. I just stopped. A lot of days I just felt like I was barely keeping my head above water.
Grief and sorrow is hard to describe. It felt like I had been on this boat in the middle of the ocean and never realized I was even on a boat. Then I was dumped overboard and was swimming, but could not find land. The water was deep and I was surrounded by scary things that I could not see. I did not know which direction I was even going. I just kept swimming in sorrow. Sometimes I would be pulled under by the sorrow and would have to find ways to come up for air once in a while. Other days I was able to float on the surface without looking down and would be ok.
I had a lot of work to do. It took me a long time, but I eventually went back to therapy. EMDR therapy in particular saved my life. I stayed sober. I learned to swim through my grief without it swallowing me. I learned that I would never find a way completely out of the water and that was ok. It would not kill me. I eventually found an island way out in the middle that I could survive on. The sorrow is all around me still. I swim into it once in a while. I understand myself much better.
I have given myself permission to feel these overwhelming feelings and even express them openly at times. I realize that my brother is worth crying over. He is worth missing. He is worth all of my tears and pain and they are so great because my love for my brother was huge. He was a big pain in the ass when we were kids. But I always loved him and I still do. I will never be the same and thank God for that. And thank God I did not start drinking again.
Before all this happened I was already specializing in addiction therapy. Since then though, I have a much bigger flame fueling my passion in this work of providing therapy for people struggling with addiction and helping their families. I cannot help it. It is where God has led me and planted my feet firmly in the middle.
I would like to end this with some hope and words of wisdom, if I may use the term “wisdom” very loosely here.
For loved ones of addicts:
- If you have a loved one struggling with addiction, tell them how much you love them. Offer to get them help and be a part of the process with them.
- Seek help yourself and let professionals help you learn how to love your addict through the addiction without being a part of their addiction.
- Remember, your loved one is making their own choices. They are already putting themselves in harms way all on their own. You cannot save them, but you can keep encouraging them and expressing concern.
- You cannot do your loved one’s recovery and sobriety for them. They have to do it themselves.
- Even if your loved one does not get sober, you can still seek help to find out how you can survive the process.
- Never underestimate the power of prayer.
- No matter what your loved one does in their addiction it is not your fault or your success.
- You don’t have to wait until your life is in crisis to get help.
- You are not the only one who is suffering from your behavior. Everyone who cares about you is affected. Your job or school performance is affected. Your future is affected. Your body and health is affected.
- What are you running from or numbing? Why do you need to escape reality with chemicals or addictive behaviors? The answers to these questions are the key to your sobriety.
- If you hurt someone physically or emotionally from your addiction, can you live with yourself?
- Have you ever thought about what hopes and dreams you have? Do you think they are achievable engaging in your addiction?
- What happened to you that you don’t want to talk about? This will unlock your path to sobriety.
- Are you scared of who you are without your addiction? Here’s a secret…every person I have ever known that struggles with an addiction found a much better version of themselves when they quit their addiction.
- Are you scared to get sober or you don’t know how? Good news, there are lots of really great professionals that can help you.