Two years ago, on the first Mother’s Day after my brother died, my mom confided in me that she didn’t know how to answer the question,”how many children do you have?” I told her that the answer would always be two, no matter what. It’s definitely a question that gives you pause after losing an immediate family member. At best, it delivers a potentially awkward moment in the conversation; at worst it can catch you off guard and open up wounds. It’s a pretty innocent question after all – to ask someone if they have any siblings – yet the answer isn’t quite so clear for some people, is it? Do I still have a brother? Am I an only child now?
3 years have passed. I still think about him every single day.
I sometimes wonder if my brother’s suicide will be one of those monumental things that will define my life. When you survive something like this, it becomes part of your identity; you become a survivor of suicide. It never leaves you and it’s not something others can fully understand unless they’ve experienced it themselves. Of course, grieving for any death is difficult, but grieving a suicide is different. The immense guilt that I carried with me for the first year or two has now eased into an acceptance of sorts, though I think about it all the time. While it was devastating for our family, I have come to decide over the years that I can understand why he did it. This may seem like an odd or even a dangerous statement to make, but I do and I have compassion for his decision. It doesn’t mean that our life wasn’t in shambles afterwards and that I wasn’t angry at him – I was. Some of you may know from my Medium post that we didn’t have any semblance of closure on my brother’s death for a long time, so while we’re memorializing the 3rd anniversary today, it’s only been a year since we were able to settle the legal issues surrounding his death and move into any sort of healing period. There was a lot of trauma during those first two years and it nearly destroyed me.
With that behind me, I marked the anniversary last year by spending the morning at the Met Museum, my brother’s favorite place in NYC. I decided then that this would be my yearly tradition. Honestly, I’m grateful to have a place to go every year. The days leading up to this anniversary are filled with enough angst already, but it gives the day a sense of purpose; I can wake up in the morning and already know how I’ll be spending my day. The museum is a perfect place to go – plenty of distractions and I’m not isolating myself at home with my own thoughts, but there are also quiet nooks in the museum that are good places to sit and think.
And what do I think about? I think about how strange it is to suddenly be an only child. I think about how little support there is out there for grieving siblings because it often gets overshadowed by the grieving parents or spouses or children. I think this is why I wanted to write this post, years later, because at the time of his death I found comfort in searching out stories of grief. At a time when I felt the most lost and alone, reading other people’s words was that lifeline that grounded me here. Maybe this story will help someone too. I have heard that siblings are sometimes referred to as “the forgotten mourners”. We are expected to be strong for our parents, to be there for the spouses and the children. When allowed, I did what I could.
Losing a sibling changes your family dynamic. We were four and now we are three. I feel the weight of this as my parents get older. The immense responsibility towards their future care without my brother’s help and support is what makes me feel the most alone now. I wish he was here to see the changes in our father; I wish he were here to share the grief whenever they pass. I also feel like I have no room to fail as the only surviving child. I’m not necessarily referring to life or career accomplishments, but just life itself. What if something happens to me? What if I get sick? It is unfathomable to think about a scenario where my parents would lose their only other child, but when we had our wills drawn up recently, I was faced with that thought even though it was hypothetical. Still, it was too much.
These days, I visit the cemetery with my family to visit my brother on holidays and memorial day weekend, but today is all mine: to commemorate his birthday which is also the day he decided to end it all, to sit and look at art, to remind myself to live a life that he no longer has.