My therapist told me yesterday that she thought I was in the final stage of grief. I remember, in the hazy days after our brother’s death, my sister reading the stages out loud to me over the phone.
We were desperate during those early weeks, flailing for words, free falling. The stages were a roadmap, something to cling to when our brains could barely form complete sentences. Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance. Four stages of hell, with a glimmer of hope at the end.
“Well, I’ll never reach the acceptance stage. I’m never gonna be able to accept this. This will never seem normal,” I remember saying quickly; I was manic in the early days. My heart would speed up without warning, and I would scream “NO!” to no one in particular.
I slipped from one stage to the next to the next. In the eleven months and twenty days since Kyle died, I have weaved in and out of denial, anger, depression and bargaining, each coming forward in turn like actors in a musical.
Denial sounded like ear-piercing screams, sobbing in the morning on the way to work, prayers that if I yelled his name loud enough, he’d appear in the flesh. I didn’t realize yet that I had to be quiet to hear him. I wanted him down here, stroking my arm and teaching me about physics. I dreamed him, images so real I hated waking up.
David Kessler, one of the authors who wrote a book on the Five Stages of Grief, says denial is an act of survival. “Denial helps us pace our feelings of grief,” he says. “There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” Reality would slip in in short painful bursts. My body pushed it away.
There was a high that came with denial. My feelings weren’t my own. This was somebody else’s life. I was playing the part of bereaved sister but Kyle would come back one day, strolling in laughing. This was a sick joke. It had to be.
Anger came in questions. How could you do this to us? To your daughter? We were supposed to be in this together, goddammit. How could you be so fucking selfish? Anger chipped away at my wall of denial, leaving parts of my core cold and exposed. I filled those spaces up with rage.
I snapped a lot at anyone in my vicinity. I lost my shit on friends, cursed at my parents, almost got fired from my job. The world felt cruel and I hated everything.
“At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry,” says Kessler. “The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.”
I could feel Kyle in my anger, finally, after so much longing. It felt horrible and foreign to be so full of hate all the time, but at least I was feeling something.
Bargaining: the “what if” stage. Kyle and I had a game when we were kids, “What would you do if…?” We would finish the question with ridiculous hypotheticals: “What would you do if a cheetah came charging through our window right now?” “What would you do if you won a billion dollars?”
My “what ifs” were different now, heavily drenched in guilt. “What if I had invited you out to Chicago that last time you called, two days before you died, asking me where you should go?” Questions like that tormented me. I hated myself, and I hated Kyle, and I hated God, for leaving me to ask these circular questions.
Depression came almost immediately after Kyle died, and still creeps in often. It feels like being underwater, like a thick layer of smoke, like those dreams where you’re trying so hard to run but you’re barely moving.
My questions were changing again, reality was inevitable: “What the fuck is the point? We’ll all be dead one day anyways.” I had this thought this over and over.
I would stand under the shower and let the water hit me, unable to muster the strength to reach for the soap. I sat in my car blinking during my lunch break, unable to eat. When I made it through a day, I would return to my house, walk very slowly up my five flights of stairs, and crawl directly into my bed. Under my covers was the only place where I could take a deep breath; sometimes it still is.
Acceptance has been creeping in for months, but is recently settling in more comfortably, like my cat Lucy on my lap right now. On good days, acceptance coats everything else, blending in and cutting some of the sharpness of the other feelings.
I can say those words now without wanting to throw up, without screaming “NO!” into the sky, without falling to my knees, without demanding the answers to unanswerable questions.
How the hell did that happen?
I could give a lot of answers to that:
- an amazing and constant stream of support from my tribe,
- and art
- and writing,
- scrap-booking and remembering.
- Music: the kind that I dance to with Kyle’s spirit and the kind with lyrics reminding me I’m not the first to experience this level of suffering,
- Being in nature. Honoring nature.
- Distractions (in their many forms)
But the most important element in my reaching acceptance has been one I never would have guessed.
I have found Kyle again.
I have felt his spirit more clearly and distinctly than I ever thought possible. I sit outside with my head to the sky and feel his energy pulsing through me as clearly as my own heartbeat. I ask him questions and listen to his responses, argue with him, hear his laughter.
It is different than remembering. It is creating something new, feeling the shape of this new relationship of ours.
I feel grateful. Not grateful that he died, but grateful that his death has expanded my heart and opened me up to the spiritual realm. Grateful for this nightmarish journey through the deepest pain, because it has led me to a place of greater understanding.
“It’s hard for us,” said his friend and mine to me the other day. “We weren’t raised with a foundation of spirituality, so we have to create it for ourselves now to connect with Kyle.”
It’s true that we don’t have the structure of religion to guide us towards a higher power, but I’m grateful for this too. In the absence of of a prescribed set of rituals and prayers is the space for us to create our own. Without a place of worship, the whole world becomes available for us to claim as holy.
I am creating my own religion. My alter is the moon, or a pile of his old flannels, or my shelf of heart-shaped rocks. My prayers come from his journals, from books of poetry, from quotes on murals. My relationship with him, my connection to him, is mine to build.
“At first,” says Kessler, “many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust.”
I am adjusting. I am owning my identity as the-girl-with-a-dead-brother, as painful as it is. When I am able to see this reality clearly, then I am able to define it in a way that brings me strength. I am able to form a new relationship with my dead brother.
I have reached the glimmer of light I longed for a year ago. It feels different than I thought, mixed in with so much pain. Nothing is as it was, but I have given up hoping it will be. Instead, I give thanks for the memories, for the journey, and for the future.