A Complicated Grief

It has been one year since I received the call, one year since the news dribbled out of the earpiece that I was sister to one less brother. It has also been one year since I laid to rest all the complex feelings I had tied up in our relationship which had abruptly ended a decade earlier, the remaining traces slowly dissolving – not with time, but with permission.

The call was not a surprise. I suppose the timing was, and perhaps even that I had received a call, since we were estranged. But the content of the call was not. My older brother had been off medication for his mental illness and on a self-medication regimen that primarily involved copious amounts of alcohol. These two factors were what led to the boundaries I had set with him for my family’s safety, and also what eventually led to his death.

I wasn’t sure how I would respond when I learned of his passing. I expected grief. I knew grief. I knew the stages and how my body responded to them. I knew how to hole up, to cocoon, so I could mourn through, and then integrate the loss into the narrative of my life.

However, when I pressed the red opaque circle on the bottom of my phone screen to indicate the call’s end, none of those reactions were waiting for me. Numbness, yes, but not shock. Not denial. As weird as it sounds, Acceptance was what greeted me first.

“Go back to the end of the line,” I tried to command her. I knew the Kübler-Ross queue, and she was out of order.

But Acceptance stood there, arms open, and I felt her response ripple warmly through my body:

“You have already visited with the others: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness. These have been your companions throughout your life. Now it is my turn.”

And I knew she was right. I had no tears left for my brother; they had been cried out for decades. The residual anger I still carried was not that he was gone, but that he had not made peace with all those he had wronged.

I expected grief to swarm in like a colony of bees to make a home in my being for an indefinite time, and then slowly drift onward. This was the grief I knew. What I encountered instead in this loss of my brother was a void. The colony had disbanded years ago, and now the final bees were being set free.

During the weeks that followed the news, I took my family on a road trip. The memory of it is foggy from the complex feelings with which I was wrestling at the time, but I recall lying in bed as my kids and husband napped around me, thinking about my family in contrast to my family of origin. Both were composed of a married heterosexual couple who were parents to two boys and one girl. The one that slept in this room with me, though, was peaceful, hopeful – redemption to my formative years.

That moment was the first time I cried. I slipped out of bed and crept into the shower, turning the water on over me and letting the streams flow down my hair, onto my face, to mingle with my tears for this brother who had wounded and scarred, who had such potential but chose otherwise. I wept for those who had loved him whom he seemed incapable of loving in return, and I wept for the loss of what could have been.

That release allowed me to receive Acceptance’s invitation, to wholly recognize that I had already suffered through the pain of my brother’s exit. His death released me from fears I still harbored of him forcing his way back into my life, finding my children, stirring up havoc as he was wont to do. I was liberated from lies and terror that I had grown used to. His death, as awful as it felt to admit at the time, was a relief.

And as I breathed in that relief, letting it take up residence in place of the grief for which I had prepared, I rested. Deeply. I allowed emotions I had not expressed to bubble up, thoughts I had dismissed to return, dreams I had stifled to be resurrected.

In the ending, there was a retelling of the story preceding it. And through that retelling, I was able to welcome the Spirit’s healing, defining me in new ways. I integrated my childhood with my brother, which I had long ago compartmentalized, into who I am – and who I am becoming – as a woman. I reunited with myself, and it set me free.

Jessica S. Marquis is the founder of Milkweed Ministries and the author of Raising Unicorns. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and three kiddos. You can catch her spiritual musings at Cottonwood Blessings, and her tweets at @bizette.