10 Years Later: How I Realized That Grief Doesn’t Have An Expiration Date
Grief is a tricky bastard.
I would have liked to say that I was able to move forward from the death of my older brother years ago, but I realized as I whacked away at frozen ice on a concrete slab with a shovel in a cemetery a few months ago, confused about where my brother’s tombstone was under piles of snow, tears flowing and rage seeping out as I screamed his name because the ice wouldn’t break, that I clearly had not.
In fact, I would say that I had actually just distracted myself all these years.
You see, my brother passed away when I was 17. This as I was preparing to graduate from high school, and literally as I was preparing myself to go to prom. He was killed on a Wednesday, and my prom was on a Friday. My mother encouraged me to go because, well, I had already bought everything for the big day. Dress. Shoes. Jewelry. Bag. And I already had a date. I just needed to get my hair and nails done. She also wanted me to go because she wanted me to have my senior prom experience, because life has to go on, even in the most random of ways, and according to my parents, I deserved to be happy. That was, I would say, the beginning of me distracting myself.
I went back to school the next week. I graduated. I went back to work earlier than my co-workers and boss at Linens-N-Things expected. I focused on preparing for college at an out-of-state school, the excitement of moving away, meeting new people, living the college life, and obtaining a journalism degree. I did all that shit. I graduated, got my first job out of college, packed up and moved to New York for another job, met a guy and fell in love, got engaged and have since been preparing for a whole new life. I’ve been distracted for years in the hopes that staying busy would force my mind to think forward. But I’ve hit some bumps along the time-to-move-on road.
Life (and the Bible) tells you to accept the things you can not change. To focus on the good times. But everything, in a way, good and bad, has reminded me of my brother over the years. And with those thoughts come grief. From the insignificant things like hearing a song play that one of my brother’s many mixtapes introduced me to (Like Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part I),” or some Coldplay), or the big things like watching us vote a Black man into the White House and wishing he could have been here to see it. And even the major stuff, like looking at my nephew, who looks a lot like what my brother looked like as a boy, or me planning for a wedding he won’t be here to see. I’m reminded of him often, despite my attempts to quell those thoughts by staying active so I don’t feel that pain. And I think it was the reality of this, as well as what he went through before he passed on, along with a multitude of stressors I took on while doing wedding planning that caused me to have a breakdown and need to return to my family home.
In those moments, big and small, the grief was there, as strong as ever.
It didn’t become crippling though until that day in the cemetery. I hadn’t been to my brother’s grave in years. It had always been too painful. But something told me that I should go before I left home. To talk with him (as crazy as that might sound to some). To inform him of my pending nuptials. To let him know that he was still missed terribly. As I drove in the cemetery and parked, I walked towards the spot I remembered as his and automatically became uneasy. I couldn’t see anything. After consistent snowfall in Chicago, the lowest layer had turned into ice, and the only thing visible were vases with flowers sticking out. I freaked out. I went back to my mother’s car, where she holds a shovel and other things in the trunk (I’ll explain later), and proceeded to, in my mind, dig him out. Pull him out from the snow (his voice, his laugh, his jokes), from my attempts to stay busy so I wouldn’t think of him, from death, in general.
But the ground was hard, and despite all my digging and pushing, only small pieces were coming up. It was too cold, and there was too much ice. So there I stood, crying and shouting because not only had I lost my brother, but I couldn’t even find his grave. I couldn’t find him through the pain. I stood there crying in the cold snow for a second before something caught my eye next to a tree a few feet away. It was a full headstone, black granite shining in the sunlight. As I walked up to it, I realized it was my brother’s grave, his image from high school senior pictures smiling at me. I was reminded that because my mother has been making trips to the cemetery every other day since my brother passed, she’s kept his large tombstone well maintained (hence, her having a shovel in her trunk and other cleaning products). His was the only plot that was uncovered.
When I saw my brother’s face, I cried yet again, lying down on his grave, happy that we were reunited in some way. And it was there that I realized that no matter how many ways I tried to distract myself, I missed my brother. I missed talking with him, playing video games with him, clowning with him, playing basketball with him (even when he would dunk in my face). And time doesn’t really alleviate that pain. I wanted to “get over it,” but my heart just wouldn’t let it happen.
So while I can’t get rid of the grief that is still there, I do realize that I can control, and/or, deal with it in some ways. When I need to cry, I let myself cry (as I did while writing this). When I need to talk to someone about it, I talk to my mom. When I need to scream about it, I do (as I did in the cemetery). And when I need to be close to someone who is a direct descendant of him, I flock to my niece, who was born a few months before his death.
Yes, grief is a tricky bastard. It reminds me of its presence when I think about him; when I close my eyes, and I reflect on what he looked like in his casket, a shell of himself. But I’m also comforted by the memories of what he looked like and did in life. The pictures of him clowning in my prom court crown and sash, of him with his friends, of him laughing and dancing on the shoulders of a relative in Nigeria, images of him with me and my sisters as kids. I can honestly say that I will likely never “get over” such a loss. But I think finally acknowledging the sorrow I tried to bottle up for so many years as we come to the 10th anniversary of his passing will finally help me to let that go so that I can hold on to him.