This past weekend marked the 2 year anniversary of the death of my husband's 16 year old brother, Stephen. His life was lost suddenly to a car accident. Consequently, it feels appropriate to talk about grief for today's Brightly Alex Mental Health Monday.
To be honest, one of the glaring feelings that comes up for me, even as I write this, is inadequacy. I was not Stephen's parent, I was not his best friend, and I did not grow up as his sibling - it's easy for me to believe that grief over his death is reserved for those people, or that I don't have a right to be as sad or affected by his death as they are. But as my husband, Eric, and I were reflecting on the past two years, I realized I've rarely let myself be okay with feeling and talking about my emotions regarding Stephen's death.
It's amazing that even after two whole years have passed, there's still a lot for me to process about everything that happened.
The point of this blog post is to tell you about some of the ways grief affected and continues to affect me, in the hope that you can somehow relate, feel less alone in your own grief, or better understand one person's experience with it. The paintings throughout the post are from my watercolor journal that I began right after Stephen died - painting has been a way for me to process and think as I've grieved.
Some feelings that stand out from the first few days after we found out about the accident and rushed back to Michigan:
- Denial. I remember right after we received the call, I wanted to turn on the TV and watch something and pretend it didn't happen.
- Fear. Fear over many things: that I wouldn't know how to grieve, that I wouldn't know how to respond to each family member in their grieving, that another terrible thing would happen, that I would be overcome with anxiety, that I or others would lose their faith in God because of this.
- The need to be strong. For my husband, for my in-laws, for my sibling-in-laws, for anyone who asked how we were doing
- Complete helplessness. I wanted so badly to change the situation but had zero power over it.
- Anger and confusion. Why did this happen???
- Guilt. Right from the start, I felt guilty that I was not the most affected person by this. I felt guilt for not feeling more sad sometimes, or for feeling too sad sometimes.
As the weeks and months continued on after Stephen's death, some feelings stayed the same and some new feelings came up:
- The need to be okay with what happened
- Annoyance when people didn't address what happened with us and pretended like it didn't happen
- Annoyance when someone did address what happened but I wasn't in the mood to talk about it
- Constant internal questioning of when I should ask my husband how he was doing vs. just leaving him along
- General inadequacy as a spouse. How was I supposed to know how to support my husband?? I would often think "people are usually married for 20+ years before they support a grieving spouse like this. We've only been married 1.5 years."
- Guilty for living away from family and guilty for not wanting to visit our grieving relatives
- Frustrated that healing isn't linear. One day I would barely think about it all, then the next I would be overcome with sadness.
- A new closeness with Eric and his family. I guess once you've seen someone at their very most vulnerable state, you bond pretty easily.
These feelings continued for a long time, returning less often as time went on.
More recently, I've remembered him and his death often. Thanksgiving 2016 was the last time Eric and I saw Stephen, so Thanksgiving feels like the beginning to the season of remembering him each year.
Some things I've felt more recently:
- Relief that mine and everyone's grief is generally less intense than it was two years ago.
- Continued fear. Every time I get an unexpected phone call from a relative, my gut reaction is to prepare myself for the most tragic news I could think of.
- Continued sadness that death is a reality.
- Freedom. To be myself, to feel what I'm feeling, to say no to guilt when it comes up, to talk openly about our experience, to feel adequate as a spouse and daughter-in-law and know we're all just figuring this out together.
Two notes before I end this post:
1. I hope that you, in no way, feel any guilt from reading this. Feel grateful but not guilty if you've never experienced deep tragedy.
2. This post is not just for those who have lost a loved one. We all experience grief for a spectrum of circumstances. Some things that I've had to learn to grieve that are less obvious include: loss of a dream or hope, loss of part of my identity, saying goodbye to a season of life as I start something new, loss of a friendship or relationship, loss of singleness as I became married, loss of innocence and adolescence, and loved ones diagnosed with chronic or terminal illnesses.