My heart beat hot in my ears. That was the only thing I could feel as my life, my perfect little illusion of a life, collapsed in on itself. I knew I should be crying or screaming, but I wasn’t. Instead, words that didn’t make sense left my mouth on repeat: "Stop joking." Over and over again, “Stop joking.”
It was two-o’clock in the morning, and suddenly, nothing made sense. The world I thought I lived in, one filled where I was invincible in the face of any sort of real tragedy, had transformed into something unrecognizable. My father's voice was calm but stitched with heaviness. I could feel his pain from states away.
“Claudia, he died.”
A toxic mix of shock and devastation swirled within me, and I couldn’t feel any of it. I couldn’t comprehend any of it. I thought things like that only happened in movies. Twenty-one-year-old brothers don't die in real life. That just doesn't happen.
Only it does. It happens when your brother is riding his bike late at night, and someone drives their car right into him. A drunken mistake or a momentary distraction — we still don’t know. We do know that this stranger hit two people and drove away. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon decorated the street as my brother's blood stained it. He was no longer him — just damaged organs, no breath, and a dimming pulse.
I wasn’t there, I was tucked in the warmth of my ignorance. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen him lying there, his neck heavy from where it was snapped. His girlfriend holding him, with tears leaking from her eyes as his blood seeps into her clothes. Pale, bruised, cold — all the things he wasn't in life. I never wanted to imagine any of it, but our minds can be a vicious thing.
My dad told me the police couldn’t get a hold of my mother. She was fast asleep in a world where her son was still alive. I wanted to go back there — go back to my old life, one that existed only minutes earlier but looked drastically different from the one I lived in now.
I hung up with my dad and immediately began calling my mom. She didn’t pick up, so I called her again. I called her again and again until a groggy version of her answered. I told my favorite person in the world the worst news one person could ever tell another person. I told my mom that her son had died.
And then there was just me, a 19-year-old girl alone in her dorm room, left to process the emotions of grief. I collapsed onto the ground, struggling to breathe. Then the tears came, loudly and violently. Red eyes. Wet cheeks. Unrecognizable sounds emerging from my throat. It was the sound of all-consuming, heart-wrenching pain. I had never heard such a sound before. It was the sound of my brokenness.
Once the tears started, they wouldn’t stop. It’s as if every time they were about to, I would remember why I was crying and they would start back up again. I felt as though I would never be happy again. My brother was a vital piece in the equation of my life, and now it felt like part of my world was missing. The only life I ever wanted to live was one that contained him. And so I cried. I cried for him and all the experiences he would never have. I cried for my parents and the horrific tragedy of losing a child. I cried for myself and the thought of never seeing my brother again. And I cried because sadness was the only thing I could feel. A deep, suffocating sadness that bled from my soul and my heart and my eyes and my skin. All of me, a puddle of a life I didn't want.
I took a 7 a.m. Greyhound bus to Boston. In a situation involving death and divorced parents, it's quite uncomfortable to pick the company of one over the other, but I felt the responsibility to take care of my father's sadness, and so I neglected my need to collapse into the arms of someone who would help soothe my own.
There were the news reporters intruding on our lives. There were the people who came into town to share their grief with us. There was a memorial service. There was the sharing of memories. There was sadness. There were tears and hugs and numbness.
I learned more about my brother the weekend of his funeral than I had ever known before. His friends told me stories about a person I didn’t know. I realized my brother was an image I created in my head. I had chosen not to get to know him. We were very different, and I had let our differences separate us.
The real him — the version that his friends knew — was nothing like my invented version. The more his friends told me about my brother, the more I began to admire him differently. There was a storm that lived within him, and he never tried to quiet it. He was brave — maybe the bravest person I've ever known — because he was unapologetically himself, a person who detached himself from conventional society and existed freely in this world. He was wild. He was not afraid to ask questions and stand up for what he believed in.
I was filled with regret because I no longer had the opportunity to experience the person his friends spoke so highly of. I missed out on truly getting to know my brother. I want to sit out on the porch with him, smoking cigarettes and asking all the things I never asked him. I want to see what his life would look like now.
Everyone deals with grief differently. My dad, unable to confront his pain, put his focus on trying to find the person who killed my brother. My mom is strong — the strongest person I know. She masked her sorrow with a brave face and took care of all of the funeral logistics. And then late at night, when she thought no one was listening, she let herself crack open. The most painful sobs I ever heard came from her bedroom and broke the silence of the night. My sister pulled away from our family and sought the comfort of her friends. I chose not to feel.
Life continued on after the funeral. That's the part I wasn't prepared for. There is a comfort in being around people who share your sadness. You feel understood. You feel less alone. You feel free to scream or cry or chain-smoke whenever the impulse hits you. But, eventually, we all have to get back to our lives. I went back to college in New York City two weeks after my brother’s death.
No one told me how to deal with grief. I didn't know how long it would last or how to work through it or how to let it go. And so I simply pushed it aside and demanded that I continue my life right from where I left off. I expected everything to look and feel as it always had. Unfortunately, grief doesn't work like that.
My world was now covered in a veil of darkness. Overnight, I had become someone else — the girl with the dead brother — and she was strikingly different than the person I was before. I didn't want to feel all of the pain, so I shoved every emotion deep inside until I couldn’t feel them anymore. I hated my new reality, so I relied on food and alcohol and sex and cutting to escape it. Soon the self-harm and nothingness morphed into a heavy sadness and, over time, that sadness became depression. I lived like that for a long time after my brother’s death — for years, if I’m being honest. I was exhibiting the behavior of a girl who was doing fine while all along I was suffering silently. Life got so dark for me that I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
I eventually came to realize that I had two choices: I could give up, or I could fight harder. With the dimmest light of hope left inside me, I decided to fight. I realized that I didn’t want to leave this world. I asked for help, I began to change my behavior, and very slowly, my world began to get brighter.
Seven years later, my life is much different now. I miss my brother every day, but I know he wouldn’t want his death to be the reason I stop living.