A Book that Does Apply to Me (and Other Thoughts)

Since moving back to Ireland this year, I’ve read nearly 25 different books, and I am absolutely loving it. New series, recommendations from friends, family, and the internet, and re-reading of some old favorites. I haven’t read any of these books specifically thinking about 3, and since the two purportedly relevant ones I read over the holidays were decidedly un-relevant, I wasn’t expecting anything overly personal.

Then, this past week, I started reading the 13th novel in a fantasy-ish series that a couple of friends recommended months ago. The always-wonderful KP sent me the whole series for my Kindle (easily my favorite new toy from Christmas this year), and I’ve been devouring the story since then. It’s gotten progressively darker, as most serialized stories are wont to do, but it wasn’t until the 13th book that I was really thrown.

Guys, this book fucked with my soul. As I was reading it, I desperately wanted to e-mail Not-Father Pete or KP, both of whom recommended the series to me, to tell them as much. In the book, the reader gets a few detailed flashbacks, illustrating how much the protagonist went through before the series started, how damaged he is. Because I’ve read 12 books about this guy over the past 3 months, I’ve become quite fond of the character and felt myself empathizing with the broad strokes of the situation. Huh. We’re all fucked up, and we can never truly escape the horrors of our past, no matter how amazing the people around us are.

Then, during one such expository conversation, a friend of the protagonist uses the phrase “That’s the difference between dead and gone.” I. Mean. Really. I am not so arrogant to think that I’m the first person in the world ever to think of or write down that phrase, but still. To have it come in the middle of a book that was already pummeling me with a storm of introspection that I wasn’t prepared for seemed a bit much.

And then I finished the book on Friday and got over it and moved on. Maybe, having let myself get so wrapped up in the series, I resonated with the idea of not being able to escape from a painful past even if I didn’t have a dead brother, duplicate phrasing notwithstanding. But I do have a dead brother, and I’ll always have a dead brother, so that’s where things end up now.

And that brings us to Story #2: I was on a job interview a few weeks ago, out to lunch with one of the search committee members. She struck me as a straightforward, no-time-for-sugarcoating kind of person – just the kind I like. While we were chatting, veering further and further away from actual job-related topics, she mentioned that her son committed suicide 4 and a half years ago.

Three years ago, if someone had said that to me on a job interview, I probably would have been more than a bit thrown off. I mean, who says that kind of thing to a complete stranger? Suicide is such an uncomfortable topic! Well, yes, it is, and it always will be. But now, I understand. I’ve felt the compulsion to talk about it, even in situations where it doesn’t come close to being socially acceptable. So I get it. And, in turn, I told her about 3. And we spent the rest of lunch discussing the details of our stories, the quirks of grief, and the variety of ways other people respond, from potentially insulting to utterly perfect.

I’ve shared 3’s suicide with strangers before, but, at the moment, I can’t remember ever sharing it in a random situation with someone who knows how it feels. I was also a bit stunned to hear Interviewer describe how, over four years later, she is just now feeling like she’s moving forward from the fog of grief. Four and a half years?!? Is that what my mom is going to have to go through?

That, to me, was the most stunning part. I’ve lived over two years without my baby brother. I think I’ve learned a lot, and I know I’ve had a much easier time than Mom and RJ, but it’s still very much a part of me, even if it’s very rarely on the surface. I know it’s always going to be a part of me, two, four, ten years down the road, for the rest of my life. Hearing it out loud, from someone who’s been there, was just a bit jarring. Enough for me to write it down, anyway.

Turning Away

It’s been just over 2 years since I started this blog. Two years and 165 posts on grief, life, and family. Over 60,000 words about my brother, my thoughts, and the process of living after suicide.

I provide these figures because, for the past couple of months or so, I’ve been coming to the conclusion that I don’t have much more to write. There’s a lot to learn in 2 years, but lately, almost nothing feels novel anymore. For the first year, everything was new. I’d never lived a year with a dead brother before. Last year was about learning to live in non-immediate grief. I wasn’t doing everything for the first time, and that, in itself, was new.

Now, I feel like I’ve experienced enough to give me a pretty solid handle on what life is like after death. There will be moves and jobs and new events; growing babies, and new babies that will never meet Uncle 3; songs and shows and stories that remind me forcefully of my brother and my situation, and others that I don’t think relate to me that well at all; the incredible love of friends and family, enough to carry me through interactions with those less compassionate; I’ll choose to tell some new acquaintances about my brother, but not all. Mom will still have a harder time than I do, and RJ will be the worst off of all; I’ll still ask people to pray for both of them before they pray for me.

And I will move through life with comparative ease. My brother’s suicide will have very little impact on my day-to-day activities. At night, at least for the forseeable future, I’ll still talk to him, telling him that I miss him and love him. If I have a bad day, or if I just choose to let myself really remember as I lay in bed, remember what that first week was like, from getting the phone call to giving the eulogy, I’ll cry with the same realization that brought me to tears 2 years ago: I want my brother back, and that will never happen. That desire will always be there, I think, to some extent.

This isn’t to say that new experiences won’t arise. I’m sure they will; at 28, I know I’ve only seen a very small fraction of the human experience so far. Still, I don’t know how many of these experiences will be new enough to motivate me to post again. I started this blog as my own digital Pensieve, a way to organize my scarily jumbled thoughts after my brother’s suicide. It really was only for me – my own way of coping. However, a small part of my writing was done with the hope of helping others in this same situation. After 3 died, I couldn’t find many helpful, real resources on sibling suicide. I know now that every grief process is different, but maybe someone in the same horrible, tragic place will find some solidarity in my descriptions. Of course, I also know that this blog is virtually impossible to find, even if you’re looking for blogs on brother suicide, but still. There’s always that chance.

So thank you, to the anonymous internet people and anyone who has read anything I’ve written over the past two years, especially those who have been kind enough to comment. Every single comment on this blog has been gracious and supportive, and I’m grateful for every single one. Again, I don’t know how often I’ll return here to update, if at all, but it’s been an immensely helpful part of my grief process. I don’t know if I am emotionally any more whole that I was two years ago, but I know more, and knowledge is, in fact, power.

In many ways, 3’s death is no more Real now than it was at the beginning. I know he’s not here; that’s a pretty undeniable fact, but suicide and death are so much sharper, so much harder to accept than simple absence. Still, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve lived. I’ve lived over two years without my baby brother, and I’m going to keep doing just that. In the face of such intense, personal agony, I can’t really ask more than that.

National Championship

For those of you who don’t follow college football as obsessively as I do, this past Monday was the championship game. It’s significant because it’s the first year of the playoff system, rather than the old BCS system in which a combination of rankings determined the top two teams to play for the championship. It’s also significant because the Ohio State Buckeyes were playing. Ohio State is, more or less, the home team for my family, and it’s where 3 (and various other family members) went to college, before he flunked out, of course.

Two years ago, I watched Notre Dame (another popular family team) get absolutely slaughtered in the national championship, just days after 3 died. It was not an enjoyable game to watch, but I was too overwhelmed to be too sad about it. Last year, I, as my brother-in-law would say, didn’t have a dog in the fight, so I didn’t particularly care whether or not Auburn or Florida State would win. I was already in Ireland, so I didn’t even watch the game.

This year, though, with Ohio State playing, I ordered an online subscription to ESPN, bought myself a late-in-the-day double espresso, dressed in my Buckeyes gear, and settled in front of my computer to watch the game. Oregon scored, then Ohio State scored, then Ohio State scored twice more, and it looked like it might be a runaway. In the second half, however, Oregon capitalized on way too many Ohio State turnovers and made it a 1-point game. Ohio State came back, however, and ended up dominating the 4th quarter. When the clock ran out, the Buckeyes had won, 42-20.

Tedious summaries aside, it was a very exciting game, and I found myself tearing up at the end. Two years ago, we all joked about 3’s “ability” to help Notre Dame win a national championship. This year, it felt more real, more of a “sign” than most things. Some families have connections to nature or music or places. In our family, it’s football. We all follow college football very closely, and you can find games on my parents’ giant TV every weekend from August through January. This win felt validating. My sister K posted a picture of little Angel in her OSU gear, with the caption “Uncle 3 would be proud!” Yes, he would be. Proud of his team, proud of the outcome, and proud of his family for all being so devoted to football :)

Yet Another Book that Has Nothing to Do with Me

I suppose I should say “two other books,” but I forgot I hadn’t written about the first one yet. Last year, I read a book that, despite potential surface similarities to my situation, didn’t resonate with me. Over the past 2 weeks, I finished 2 more books that were recommended to me, and I came away with the same reaction.

First, after hearing about RJ’s Christmas Eve breakdown, my two cousins suggested I read Day, the third novel in a pseudo-trilogy of writings by Elie Wiesel. Cousins were very eager, referencing the novel at nearly every juncture of RJ’s story, insisting that I would find it very meaningful.

So I read it. Mr. Wiesel, himself a Holocaust survivor, writes a fictional tale of a man obsessed with death and misery, and the friends who try to diminish that obsession. While I can certainly see Cousins’ point about the usefulness of the book (the friends consistently pushing the idea that we should not be miserable, and that our misery affects not just ourselves, but others around us), I found myself recoiling from the story. I didn’t like the implications for myself, for 3, or for RJ. For one, I don’t want to be the one to tell RJ that she should stop being bitter because it’s hurting others. I’m reasonably certain her response would contain plenty of four-letter words and plenty of martyr-ish claims (“Oh, suuuuuure! Let me just stop missing my brother and best friend so YOU feel better!”). Since I’m reasonably sure that 3 was neither morose nor obsessed with death, I didn’t like the implication that the he was like the suicidal main character. Plus, in my interpretation, the book didn’t end happily; the lead guy was still miserable and stuck in the past! As for me, I don’t think I’m obsessed with guilt over 3’s death, so I couldn’t relate to the main character, either.

Then, I read Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death. My fabulous godfather gave it to me for Christmas, saying that, since Ms. Strayed has inspired a lot of people, he thought of how I inspire people. This dubious claim aside, I read the book as I sat through several hours of layovers last week.

And, though I’d never say it to Godfather, I kind of hated it. I don’t, at all, see how Ms. Strayed is inspiring. I think she’s an idiot who’s lucky to be alive. Not only did she fail to prepare properly for her trip (she drastically overpacks, but fails to try on her pack before actually hitting the trail, resulting in a bag she can barely lift), but she shoots heroin the day before leaving. I didn’t find her inspiring; I found her annoying. Her way of handling grief is entirely different from mine, and, thus, I got virtually nothing from the book (other than a way of passing the time in New York’s JFK airport, which is no small thing).

I’ve always been overly judgmental, so it’s not that surprising that I’m so harsh on books about grieving or tragedy. I just really don’t empathize with any of these people or characters. I suppose that goes back to one of the reasons I started this blog: in the months after my brother’s suicide, I couldn’t find anything that related well enough to my experience. Therefore, I thought I’d put my thoughts out there, just in case someone else was feeling the same and looking for affirmation, like I was. And still am.

Make Me Miserable

Spending the past couple of weeks at my parents’ house was a bit trying. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable – I got plenty of quality baby time with my nieces and nephew, I got wonderful food, and I got to enjoy the company of my siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Of course, I also got to spend a lot of time with my younger sister, RJ, which meant that I could see, up close, just how much she still struggles with 3’s death.

As I mentioned last week, RJ has a lot of rage toward our dad’s family. Honestly, she just has a lot of rage, in general. She doesn’t like Mom, she hates Dad’s family and won’t answer calls from Dad himself, and she’s still generally stuck in terms of career (her former university kept changing the rules, so she never finished her degree, and, now that she found a job that she likes, is getting paid barely above minimum wage because of said lack of degree). All of this is, of course, compounded by the death of her brother and best friend, making her a pretty bitter person.

And I hate it. I just hate it. RJ is so angry, so volatile, that most efforts to help her are met with, at best, an eye roll, and at worst, indignant fury that leads to months of no contact. I try to balance sympathy and non-threatening agreement with hesitant, carefully-couched advice and expressions of concern. I don’t know how successful I’ve been. I certainly don’t think I’m helping, but she also doesn’t seem to outright hate me, so I guess that’s something, right?

One night this past week, as I was having my nightly chat with 3, I begged him (and God) to give RJ peace (asking to make her happy seemed a bit shallow, in my opinion). “Make me miserable,” I prayed. Take her rage, her agony, and give it to me. I mean, come on. I have virtually no other struggles. I’m at the airport as I type this, on my way to Ireland for the second time, with generous, kind coworkers waiting to meet me, spectacular friends in the UK planning vacations for me, and a brand-new Kindle in my bag for endless reading adventures. I can afford plenty of misery at this point.

Of course, this desire may have as much to do with my need for control as it does with my desperation to fix my sister. I told RJ (which may or may not have been a terrible idea) that, for me, the hardest part of 3’s death has been her – watching her feel so awful and not being able to fix it. Over the past few weeks, everyone from Grandpa to my sister J to my cousin has expressed the same hope – that RJ be happy.  We all want it, but none of us have any idea how to make it happen. It’s the majority of what I’ve felt for the past 2 years consolidating; I’ve had such an easy time with 3’s death, but I can’t seem to pass along that ease to those who need it most.