A Sadness in Spring

How I learned to listen on my long walk with grief.

Image courtesy of Catherine Stern

My four-year-old daughter skips down the aisle next to her cousin. Both look adorable in mint green tulle skirts and sparkly shoes. Across the room my husband holds our younger daughter who passed out before her flower girl debut. My niece comes next — I can’t believe how old she looks at seven. She had been three just a short time ago. My parents sit in the front row, dutiful and stoic. My nephew in his smart tuxedo escorts Kristen, all dressed in dazzling blue, down the aisle. She and the groom exchange vows and kiss; we all clap. I exhale — I make it through my sister-in-law’s remarriage and all that is left to do is get drunk in Buffalo. Callie sits next to me inside a giant window sill of the old mansion where I spent my wedding night ten years ago. We were perched here to collect our flower girls after they walked down the aisle. Callie leans in close and says through the applause, “I want you to know that your Michael meant the world to my Michael.” Sorrow floods out the relief, and it is as if it has just happened.

The unconscious does not understand time, my therapist explained. Four years had passed since my brother Michael took his own life, and I know that. The part of me that moved from DC to New York, had two children, and quit her job understands that he is gone. But to my unconscious, my therapist cautioned, it could have happened yesterday. Callie’s words tapped into this complicated sorrow. “Her Michael” is her husband and also my brother Michael’s close childhood friend. They had a bit of an estranged relationship, and we had not spoken since my brother had passed. Her Michael keeps an art easel of my brother’s, she said, and he cared for him greatly. The intense pain gave way to gratitude. I was thankful to know that Michael felt deeply for my brother. Various emotions came and went like this all night: joy, sadness, discomfort, pleasure, sometimes nothing. The feelings entered, I let them be — not rushing to expel or embrace, but observing them. And though I appreciate this capable new man in Kristen’s life — one who takes on the tremendous task of co-parenting my brother’s children, I still feel the loss of my brother quite acutely.

The moment my law firm’s security notifies me that my husband is in the lobby, dependably on recall, I can see the look in his eyes and I know. I don’t want him to tell me. Then I yell at him, demanding to know who has died — my brother or my father — as if I can fend off devastation by knowing more quickly. I ask, is it Michael? He nods, his sad eyes trained on mine. Soon I am curled up on the sidewalk next to the CVS outside my office. Days later, eight weeks pregnant with my first child, the darling little flower girl at my sister-in-law’s second marriage, I deliver the eulogy at my brother’s funeral. I had combed through a shoe box full of letters, reading several my brother had sent to me while he attended college. I include excerpts of these letters in the eulogy, and I see my brother’s college roommate crying in a pew. I follow my brother’s casket down the middle of the church, I see my own college roommate sobbing. At the burial site, I hear the bag pipes and I see the casket lower. At one point, I fear all the grief might harm the baby, and then I feel guilt for even thinking such a thing.

After Michael’s death, people called me resilient, strong even. They were impressed I went back to work, had two children and moved forward in the wake of such loss. I outwardly accepted the praise while thinking that these people couldn’t really know me at all. For my resilience was actually a turbulent march through life — a daily battle with the emotional consequences of this tragedy. I could hear my body saying something, but I didn’t know how to listen. For a year, I was numb. Another year I felt anger toward those who had not known similar trauma. And finally, I feared I was completely broken. Anxiety attacks had me in emergency rooms, convinced I was having a heart attack. My body ached from the constant burden of keeping it together. I functioned in this manner until I couldn’t anymore. Only after seeking the right help for me, and listening to myself rather than judging and denying, have things become more manageable.

Each year April breaks winter’s grip on the Northeast, and I march toward the anniversary of my brother’s death. Underneath all that beauty there is a sadness in me. I listen, I cry, and it is ok.

Originally published at medium.com

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