I remember the exact place I was when Lorae called to tell me about the loss of her older brother, Rory, and the text she sent two years later about the death of her younger brother, Robbie. I was having breakfast that morning with my children, and I sobbed into my toast, trying to explain to three concerned little faces why mommy was so, so sad. Watching my friend go through the unimaginable not once, but twice is heartbreaking. And then watching her struggle and fight to keep going, to stay healthy, to remake her life, moves me deeply. There are so many lessons Lorae can teach us about grief and survival—lessons she never wanted to teach—that I just know her story is going to make a difference to someone today.
I am grateful that there is movement in and attention to grief awareness, but it also saddens me a bit. Those walking along a grief path experience and feel it every single day. It takes constant work and control to understand and manage those feelings. I hope that Grief Awareness Day will help those who are walking with someone through a grief experience determine best how to help them. Important components to me are learning how to open conversations, how to initiate support, and how to allow loved ones to heal openly.
Tell us about your brothers, Rory and Robbie.
It’s hard for me to know where to begin. I am a middle child between two boys. Rory was 4 years older and Robbie was 6 years younger. I loved being the girl in this sibling sandwich; I had such unique relationships with each of them. Both boys died by suicide. Rory in July of 2013 at the age of 38, and Robbie in March of 2015 at the age of 31.
Rory was my ultimate protector and Robbie was my love, my heart. They both served very distinct purposes in my life, which is what makes their absence such a vast hole; I still crave their roles. When you have siblings, you think your lives will always run parallel, that they will always be there, and when that reality shifts it takes work to come to terms with that. This has been one of the toughest battles: training my brain and heart to know that they are no longer here, and understanding the loneliness that comes with their loss.
Rory was a fiercely loyal family member, friend, and soldier. Always intensely private, crazy goofy, quick-witted, and a deep thinker.
In my eyes, Rory’s role of protector led to his departure. When you spend you life caring for and defending others, who will do the same for you? Rory was a lock and key kind of guy; he kept everything inside and never spoke of his difficulties or his struggles. Now I look back on his life and see the crumb trail of events that brought him to where he was when he made the choice to leave us. After serving our country in Afghanistan as a Navy Corpsman stationed with Marine Snipers, Rory battled with Post-Traumatic Stress and it overrode his ability to cope. I feel a small sense of peace with Rory’s loss because I know he is no longer suffering. I would never want him to live a life of debilitating insomnia, flashbacks, survivor’s guilt, and feelings of shame or failure. I just wish we were able to help him see his life the way his family and friends saw it: he was always brave, he was a fighter, a hero, and the most loyal man you could have known.
Robbie was more of a free spirit, especially compared to Rory and myself. His freedom was enviable. He lived his life with a willingness to try, go, and do. He was deeply sensitive and desired love and belonging always. He had a wonderful heart and cared for equality deeply.
Robbie’s loss feels much more senseless and I think it always will. He didn’t see the beautiful life in front of him, and that breaks my heart. After suicide, it is common for the family unit to fracture into millions of bits. We were all grappling with our own grief after Rory, just trying to put one foot in front of the other, and I think we were blind to what was happening with Robbie. He was lost. He needed reassurance, he needed love, he needed peace, and he needed forgiveness from others and himself. Isolation is something people in our society are really struggling with right now. We lead full lives, working jobs, raising children, but have we become so busy that someone isn’t able to ask for help for fear of inconveniencing us? This is where work needs to be done. Extend your hand to someone and say, “I’m here with you. You are not alone.”
In her book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg describes grief as a demanding companion. How would you define grief in your own experience?
In the beginning everyone sees your grief, and then weeks and months pass, and I think people genuinely believe it gets better or goes away little by little. It does not. You never forget it. You can be living and laughing, but grief hovers and the most menial things can scratch the surface and expose it again. I always ask people to imagine a normal calendar year and insert your loved one’s birthday, the anniversary of their death, the holidays (for me, veteran holidays), your birthday, your children’s and parents’ birthdays, the first days of school—then imagine that each of these days triggers a memory. It’s a worm hole, sometimes never ending and very unpredictable. I have learned you cannot prepare yourself for these moments of grief, but must just let them happen. You only get better by getting through them. You spend your time missing your loved one, being sad they’re gone but also looking for a sign they are still with you (not everyone does this, but I do). Everyone’s story is different and I’ve always been aware of the ebbs and flows, the peaks and valleys. No two days are the same, no one walks the same path.
Option B is such an incredibly valuable resource for understanding and working through grief. I read a lot when I was in early grieving, feeling like I could find some magic answer to solve my pain and fix my family. Sheryl Sandberg is the first author describing a non-suicide loss that I actually connected with. Misery looks for company and too often people would say to me, “when my mom passed from cancer. . .,” and I always said to myself “nope, not the same.” Sheryl Sandberg peeled back the layers so that I could begin to identify with the grief others have experienced, even though it is different from my own.
It all depends on where I am in my journey; every year is different. I am very open on social media, and memorialize them on their anniversaries and birthdays. This year on Rory’s birthday, I cooked his favorite meal and made his favorite birthday cake. We sang happy birthday to Rory and instead of swallowing my tears as I have in the past, I let my children and my husband see my grief openly. It’s something I’m still learning to do but there are lessons in it for them, too.
I speak of my brothers with my children whenever I can saying, “this was just like Uncle Robbie’s car; he took you here for the first time; he loved this book; this was really important to him.” I never want my children or friends to fear bringing up my brothers’ names or their memories. It keeps them alive inside me, and it helps ease the pain of the boys not being here everyday.
I want the memory of who they were and what they were to be here as long as people will listen. I consistently share articles and books about grief, suicide, and mental health. I have felt the push to advocate for how we treat grief, and how we can be better at embracing the difficult moments that will always come. Deep inside, there is more for me to give but it will have to be in time.
First, know you are not alone. Second, grieve in the way that is best for you. People can tell you what worked for them but know that your path will be different and that is okay. Give yourself credit where credit is due. If you get up and get dressed, that is progress. If you go to work or make dinner, even better. I think people too often feel that they should be living their normal life again, but normal is different now and you will not be the same person again—you will be a new version of you. This not a bad thing; it can be an incredible time for empathetic growth.
I am a reader and researcher so that was where I began. I checked out books, I read articles, looking for the answer to make it better. What made it better for me was finding a support group, going to a counselor and seeking comfort in my village. I have been very lucky that my support network was far-reaching and still is. People continue to show up for me, and it keeps me vested in this life no matter the curveballs thrown. Depending on the loss, there are resources out there for reading, counseling, support groups and volunteerism; I view these as life lines. We all need to take advantage of the hand extended to us; you never know what it can do for you or someone you come across.
The nation’s largest non-profit organization for saving lives and bringing hope is The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They offer so many opportunities and resources for healing. Through AFSP, I have participated in walks to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention, I have lobbied in my state for mental health legislation, and I have participated in their annual Survivors’ Day event. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant write in Option B, I am creating and exercising my co-destiny by taking these steps. It helps with the healing.