Losing a loved one is hard. Loss is never just loss, because life and relationships are not simple. Grief mingles with anger, laughter, relief, pain. Guilt.
Six months ago, I lost my disabled brother, Bobby. We lost our little sister, Jeannette, in 2001. She was also disabled.
The depth of my grief, and my parents’ grief, over losing these two special family members. . . well, let’s just say it was hard. Very hard. And complicated, of course, by the fact of their disabilities. Intellectual disabilities, degenerative muscle disease, and an associated schizophrenia—all these things characterized our day-to-day interactions with a strange combination of love, worry, protectiveness, fear, guilt, and joy. But it wasn’t strange to us. That was our “normal.”
And I realize that all of those feelings are present in most relationships: our conflicting feelings are not unique to our situation as a family with special needs. It’s just that sometimes it seems like someone tweaked the volume level on them. Turned them up. So these days I have to remind myself that grief often reflects what our relationships were like in life. Complicated. And sometimes the volume level on that grief is a notch or two higher than I’d like it.
Lately, Bobby has been haunting the edges of my sleep. I will wake knowing that I’ve just seen him, that he’s just stepped away for a moment. It takes a few seconds for me to remember that it’s been years since Bobby was able to “step away” with ease on his own two feet. And then it takes a few more moments for me to realize that Bobby is no longer with us.
Still, I’ll know that we’ve been talking. That there were no intrusions from the others who lived in Bobby’s head, no schizophrenia to complicate our conversation—it was just the two of us, relaxing together, being happy in each other’s company.
And, as painful as it is to remember that he is gone, there is also a sense of peace that comes from remembering the love of my brother.
It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember what we were talking about in my dreams. It never really mattered what we talked about in life. What mattered most was the sense of completeness we shared. Just sitting together.
“Johnny’s birthday is coming up,” Bobby would volunteer each spring in conversation, in reference to his beloved cousin. “And then yours.” And he’d recite the dates of all the family birthdays and eventually roll around to his birthday in July.
“What do you think you’ll want for your birthday, Bobby?” I’d ask.
“Ummm. . . Chinese food! You bring ice cream cake?” His eyes would dance as we planned the menu, and then he’d sit back again, silent and content.
That would be it for a while. And it was enough.
That was one of things that I learned from Bobby, and from Jeannette. Just being with someone you love is enough. Just existing in the moment, not yearning for something else to do, somewhere else to be—it was enough. Conversation was okay, but being present was more important.
So, when I wake from these dreams of Bobby, the pain of losing him is tempered by a sense of wonder. I am amazed at the ability of the human heart to carry the spirits of our loved ones with us—to continue to learn from them long after their bodies have passed away. No, it’s not the same as having them with us. How much I would give to be able to hug my brother and sister again. . . but they truly are still with me. If I’m willing to be present.
If I’m willing to let them speak to me through my heart, my dreams, my subconscious awareness of their spirits--which are part of the fabric of my own being.
They are still as real, as alive, as I am.
Grief is complicated. But our relationships with our loved ones endure, long after they are gone. And for that, I am grateful.