I was 22 when my brother died. People say you never know how you will react to this type of loss until it happens to you. It’s true. I had no idea I’d lose my mind, find my heart, re-engineer my life and come out feeling more open, raw, vulnerable and strong than I’d ever felt before.
My brother is, and was, and amazing human being. A talented musician, he’s started playing guitar when he was 8 and by the time he was 18 had taught himself bass, drums, vocals and had learned recording skills. A self taught one-man band, he once spent all of Christmas Eve in his bedroom mixing a song we’d improvised on our summer vacation, somewhere on the train between the Burg Elz and Bellagio in what would turn out to be our only trip to Europe together.
If I could describe my brother in one word it would be sensitive. His sensitivity made him a brilliant poet and musician, and left him vulnerable to the seductions of substances. As far as I know, he started smoking in high school and, within a few years of jamming in dark studios in San Francisco late into the night, tried and became addicted to, heroin.
It’s a whirlwind once these things begin. The whole family gets pulled into crisis mode and no one knows how or why or what to do. Instantly, everyone is desperate to help, to heal, to interrupt the cycle of addiction and to bring the beloved brother and son back to his real self. The self seems lost to a dragon of need, of hopelessness, of pain. After years of recovery programs, my dear older brother came back to life and back to himself. Thank God.
It was three years later and just a few months after celebrating his third year of sobriety outside the Berg Elz castle in Germany, that I got the call I’d hoped never to get. He was gone, and I was shattered. I flew home, sobbed next to his casket, held the box of his ashes in my hands and designed a commemorative tattoo I’d soon have carved into my back. I pulled it together and lost it countless times over again. If life had been a puzzle, I felt each of the pieces had been soaked and torn, and I’d need to make some kind of impressionist creation of the mess, as the original form and structure of the picture was beyond recognition.
One year after his death I collapsed onto the floor sobbing, not wanting my entire life to be about my dead brother. It isn’t now. But I don’t know who, what, or where I would be without him, his life and his death.
Today, I work as psychotherapist. I teach yoga. Everything I do is about healing. Sure, I could have gone that route without this experience, but the depth and healing that came through my yoga practice and through my own counseling after Matt died give me an insight into the healing process that I would never have signed up for willingly. The gift of the suffering is empathy. I know what it feels like to lose. I know what it feels like to hurt and to grieve, and for life to NOT go the way that you want it to and think it will. I have experienced the shock and the loss, and now, 12 years later, I know how I react to the unfathomable. I know that I can (and I did) make it through, and that my heart being ripped open offered me the opportunity to share a deep sense of empathy, compassion and sisterhood with those who are from way beyond my bloodlines. On the heels of this experience I worked with some of the most profoundly traumatized groups of people – in housing developments, refugee camps, slums, prisons, juvenile halls, and rehabilitative schools. I looked into the eyes of those who were hurting and I could stay with them, because, in my own way, I was hurting too.
I once wrote a poem about my brother for an assignment in school. It was short, not much more than a haiku. Through my tears I looked down at the page and saw that I’d spelled the final line, the very last word, incorrectly. I’d written: Heroine.
But then, I thought, I like that ending better. I think my brother would have too.