When I was told that someone had driven head first into my brother’s van on the night of July 12th 2014, killing him instantly, I honestly thought my heart had stopped beating. I don’t mean in a symbolic way, I mean in an actual physical way. When people say their heart has been ripped out, I now know what they mean. It felt like there was an actual hole in my chest, where my heart had once been and if you looked down you would just see a black cavernous hollow. I have never felt anything so earth-shattering or so devastating before in my life, and I hope I never will again.
The first few months were consumed with the funeral, what to do with my brother’s business (Fingerprints Delicafe, located in Clarendon Park, Leicester), how to get up every morning and how to look after my heart-broken parents. But after that, after a certain amount of time had passed, I felt a shift in the people around me. I felt them willing me to ‘move on’. I understood what was happening, this is social convention, right? You get a few months to grieve, but then it’s time to ‘get over it’ - time to get better. Before this loss, I was one of those people. I had no idea of the ways in which grief strips you of who you are and forces you to re-think your entire being.
I felt my friends wanting things to get back to normal, to start socialising again and being interested in the trivialities of life. I tried very hard, I thought there was something wrong with me when I wasn’t ‘over it’, when I hadn’t ‘moved on’. I went out for dinner with friends one night and someone said something that made me think of my brother – so I mentioned my memory. The atmosphere changed and I saw, out of the corner of my eye, one friend roll their eyes. I barely spoke for the rest of the evening.
It was then that I realised, except for a very few close friends and family, society had had enough of my grief now. My time in the ‘grief sin bin’ was up and if I wanted to come out, I had to look better and be more like my old me. So I fought a battle constantly between what I thought I should do and what I actually wanted to do. I put my mask on every time I went out of the front door, I tried to engage in life again but I couldn’t keep it up for long. It was exhausting, I was not robust enough to maintain this approach and every time I was alone I crumbled.
The alternative option, however, was one of isolation and loneliness. Friendship groups change and I found, things separated into those who had suffered a traumatic grief and those who hadn’t. I felt like I had become a member of an incredibly exclusive club - however, I didn’t want to join and the price I paid for membership was way too high.
Eventually, I became ill and had to rethink everything. I was trying to live a life that my brother would be proud of, I was trying to be the best daughter and wife I could be. On top of this, my husband and I were going through multiple IVF cycles which kept failing and I was most definitely struggling to understand who I was, who I’d been and who I wanted to be.
I then read a book on grief, which talked about the path of life. It said that the original path I was on, with my brother, was bright and sunny and I was comfortable with where it was going and what the future held. This new path I had been forced onto, was dark and scary, I had no idea where it twisted and turned and I desperately wanted to be back on the other path. I envisaged myself like Alice in Wonderland, when she’s lost in Tulgey Woods. The book explained that I could not get back to the original path, no matter how hard I tried… that path was now shut, forever.
So I finally stopped fighting to be the old me. I let go of everything I was, I took a deep breath and I started to investigate who I actually wanted to be. I let go of the pressure to ‘move on’. To expect me not to have changed following the traumatic death of my younger brother is absurd.
The handling of grieving people, whilst very well meaning, is centred on fear. The fear of upsetting them, of saying the wrong thing, or of making them cry. This fear surrounds the friends and family of the bereaved and forces an invisible divide between them. The reality is simple. Making someone cry is not a bad thing – sad does not mean bad. Saying nothing is far, far worse than saying the wrong thing. I can forgive the wrong thing, I cannot forgive my brother or my grief being ignored. I think about my brother all of the time, mentioning him does not ‘remind’ me – he is never far from my thoughts.
The truth is, mentioning him helps. It helps me, it helps my parents. We like talking about him. He is no longer here, therefore if we don’t talk about him, it starts to feel like he never existed and that is horrendous. Instead of avoiding him, willing us to move on or to get better, why not ask about him? I will not disintegrate into a pile of tears and ash at the mere mention of his name.
I will however, tell you about the time he tricked me into snowboarding a black run by telling me it was red. I will tell you about when we worked together in France and about our summers as kids where we played Monopoly when it rained and built a billycart when the sun was out. I’ll tell you about our joint love of vodka Diet Cokes and the nights we spent dancing and drinking in nightclubs together. We were best friends and I love an opportunity to talk about him.
My brother will always be with me, for 33 years he was a huge part of my life. That did not stop being true the day he died, he is still a part of my life even if he isn’t here. If society could stop willing the bereaved to go back to being their old self again and instead embrace the changes, the bereaved could perhaps find peace. This constant internal battle between wanting to talk about the missing person, wanting to acknowledge their presence and knowing that it’s not really acceptable in society, that you risk being told you’re not ‘over it’ yet, is gruelling.
I used to be caught up trying to live a life Gareth (my brother) would be proud of, but actually, I think he’d be proud of me anyway. I think he’d think I was doing my best. I can’t do what society thinks I should or shouldn’t do, or conform to whether society thinks I have or haven’t moved on - I can only do what I can do. And I think he’d understand that.