Loving Myself Whole After Loss
My brother would have been 43 this week. His birthdays are a strange event for me.
Every year that another one passes; I move further down a timeline without his physical presence and wonder who he would have been if he’d lived to see that age.
We lost Brent at age 39 back in 2016. I was 38 at the time. A psychologist living in Alaska, busy running my private practice, recently married, and totally unprepared for the grief journey I was about to take. Or the impact Brent’s loss would create.
Now I’m 41, soon to be 42. I’m a hybrid of many things professionally, living on the island of Kauai. Still reforming and reinventing myself after making a break from my former life in order to create space to actualize my unlived yearnings and dreams.
Brent taught me about the brevity of life.
I was eviscerated after his loss. I’ve written about it in so many forums and forms, I don’t feel the need to dip too deeply into those waters, as I write these words. Except to say losing him changed me in an irreversible way, and I’m still learning the nature of my own change.
I walked around like half my lungs had been ripped away for a long time, feeling broken inside, wondering if I’d ever feel whole again. I don’t know quite when it happened, but somewhere over the last 3 ½ years, new cells and tissue formed themselves around those rips, twined their essence through the blank spaces inside of me, and formed bigger ways of breathing that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the emptiness caused by loss.
Brent has become a part of my blood and limbs in ways that exceed my ability to put words. Because the essence of who he’s become to me is something wordless. It can only be felt through heart’s resonance, experience and the knowledge that as my of tree of self reaches and grows higher in life, I live with the awareness that the transformative energy of losing Brent is woven throughout my bark and branches.
Magnificent scarlet blooms have opened, watered by my ongoing sense of his presence and the unconditional joy and immense love he now brings to our relationship.
Loving yourself whole after loss doesn’t look the way you’d think it would.
We never go back to the shape we were or pick up the threads of the life we were living. There’s too many broken strands, new colors, and interruptions in the pattern to reweave it as it was before. Sure, you can try to pick up where life left off, but grief has a rather pressing presence, which tends to require our attention sooner or later.
I gave it my full attention when it arrived in my life. My grief was so pressing that I didn’t see any other choice than to yield to the sorrowful, unexpected direction my life had taken and lean into my own heartbreak.
It was an overwhelming break with many disorganized pieces. Some of those pieces were permanently scattered by the wreckage of 2016. Some of those pieces became the catalyst for fierce self-examination, inviting me to retrieve and transmute my shards, under the light of grief’s strange alchemy, in such a way that permanently changed my shape.
I became bigger. Braver. More grace filled. More perspective laden- - I was a 38-year-old psychologist grappling with the grittiest bits of loss, while simultaneously having transcendent experiences with my brother in the afterlife.
How could this not reshape my perspective and help me see the world through a new lens of sincerity and love?
I became stronger. Deeper. More authentic. Hungrier for my life- - I began to see that the only thing standing in my way and holding me back from actualizing my dreams, was me.
I became aware. Achingly, keenly aware of the brush of trees on my face. The beat of earth beneath my feet. The breath of the sky and the massive amount of sentience radiating through life’s veins. It felt like a love letter from the universe, and Brent was there in the pages.
Because when I stripped it all down and distilled our relationship to what was most important at the core: the only essence that mattered was the love.
As I sit here writing these words, I wish I could better describe what I mean by love.
Describe how love acted as the gateway that still connected me to Brent on the other side, simultaneously washing over, forgiving, and dissolving any bumps, edges, and ridges in our relationship as siblings in this life.
I wish I could describe what it was like the first time that I felt his spirit. Or how it is now when I’m thinking about him and a presence will come onto me so strong that I know he’s right by. Or what it’s like to feel him at family gatherings- - Set a place for me at the party Little Sister, and I will be there.
I wish I could describe the bittersweet light of what it’s like to hold grief in one hand: the aching loss of what will never be and a life that ended too soon, even as I hold hope and beauty in the other. I move forwards in my life knowing that my life doesn’t look the way I thought it would. Yet it’s also turned into an authentic, creative expression of my being, which keeps evolving in ways more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined prior to 2016.
I wish I could describe those things, but I’ve learned these past few years that these kinds of matters are best experienced and understood with the heart. Who speaks a language beyond words and who will invite us to a profound space of healing and mending if we just listen and heed its wisdom.
Loving myself whole after loss is a different process than I thought it would be. I’m a different shape than I ever would have expected. Yet that shape only exists, because of how Brent’s love changed and rearranged me, and because I kept my heart open and gave myself over to the arrangement.
The writer in me wants to end this with some profound new wisdom, but I believe I’ve already said what I needed to say most. So, I’m going to defer to the words of my 2016 self, who somehow found a way to navigate the grief journey with integrity, vulnerability, and transparency- - and emerge on the other side healed and whole.
2016-year-old me knows so much about the power of love, and I will spend the rest of my life honoring her wisdom.
Nobody's grief passage will ever look the same, but for me, after the jagged mountains, the desolate wasteland, the relentless desert, that deep long ocean of sadness, I washed up onto new shore.
Gradually got my feet underneath me and remembered I knew how to walk. Stepped out onto a landscape of gentle, shimmering pink where billions upon billions of stars light the way in the night, and the sun brings warmth and renewal each day. And I could see the invisible, gossamer strands of love running through it all. Wrapping everything together, connecting us in our shared humanity, holding us in place in the grace of this space.
Love has no walls here.
The possibilities are infinite.
*Final quote from Lamentations of The Sea: 111 passages on grief, love, loss and letting go (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2017).