Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

by Jerry Waxler

When my older brother Ed was diagnosed with cancer, he was 37, married, with two young children and the owner of a growing cardiology practice in a small town in Georgia. It did not take long for the disease to rip it all away. When he died, I was 30, still entrenched in my protracted struggle to grow up. We were living almost a thousand miles apart and so I experienced his death once removed, as if the loss was happening to someone else.

As I write my memoir, these 32 years later, I discover the gaping hole his death created, as if I was postponing my grief until I was mature enough to better understand what happened. I now watch our relationship unfold in slow motion, and this time I intend to learn as much as possible about what happened and what I missed.

Much of my childhood is hazy, and as I struggle to remember it, I sometimes gain clarity by comparing notes with my sister. I had no such opportunity with my brother, at least not in physical conversations. But by imagining discussions with him, I have improved my memory as well as my peace.

It started in a psychiatrist’s office. I was complaining about the fact that after decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people I was a therapist. Even though I had my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, and was working with clients, I was still not able to see myself as a mental health care provider. In fact, I often tried to hide it.

The psychiatrist, Lyndra, was helping me sort out my self-image problem by using a sort of modified hypnosis, called EMDR. I sat with closed eyes while she alternately tapped my knees and told me to think about how I could break past my reluctance. Out of the haze, my brother appeared. He was kind and respectful, the same as I remembered him in life, and he “gave me his blessing” telling me how proud he was of my new role.

The vision boosted my confidence, helping me proceed more energetically along my new path. The following year, I conceived of a book in which Ed was a character who communicated with me from the Other Side. I imagined he must have achieved great wisdom by then, and I asked him to help me sort out the meaning of life. Although I still have not figured out how to tie together the loose ends of the book, the hours I spent with him in my imagination helped me restore our connection.

During the process, vignettes about our early relationship peeked from their hiding places. When he was trying to earn a place on his high school basketball team, he needed a place to practice. I helped him build a court in my grandmother’s yard. We dug the hole, poured in concrete, and erected the backboard. The summer before he left for college, he assembled a hi-fi system from a kit. He taught me how to read the color code on the transistors and solder them onto a circuit board. I was 11. The following summer, we played chess out on the patio. I had been studying chess books, and we were an even match. Sometimes he would make me play two or three games in a row, leaving me begging for mercy, and yet at the same time feeling bonded to him in the strange way competition connects opponents.

After he moved away to college, I had a premonition. I was watching a drama on television about a young boy who heard news of his older brother’s death. An inexplicable rush of sadness washed over me. And then there it is. I see myself at 30 flying down to Georgia to be by his side as he lay dying and instead of feeling grief, all I could feel was admiration.

I can’t go back to change the way I reacted, but I can use my writing to reorganize my thoughts and feelings now. By illuminating early memories, my writing has helped me appreciate growing up with him. I am developing a richer range of emotions about his passing. And moving forward, I have made better sense of his absence, filling in some of that gap with warm stories, images, and sometimes even a sense of his presence.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which you were together with someone you miss.

5 thoughts on “Catch-up grief: how visiting my brother helped me grow

  1. Isn’t it amazing how writing memoir can help us make sense of the pieces of our lives. I am so glad you are finding some peace as you write yours. I, too, did some neglected grieving and it was very healing.

  2. This is a beautiful and moving post. I love the image of your brother giving his approval to your life. I have often longed for that feeling.

  3. Jerry your experiance brought a few tears to my eyes. I related to it. My ex died a year and a half ago. Last summer my counselor inspired me to write a book about her.

    This is the gist of the ending:

    I’ve named the book “Thelma’s Tears”

    We had seperated Nov. 2005. for 2 and half years we never saw each other or spoke to each other. I had accepted that we would never be together again. I figured as long as she was alive and well I would be happy with that. But during the whole 2 and a half years I wanted to look her up and make ammends for all the times I made her cry. But I was too scared to look her up. I wanted to sing and record the song, “All I’ve got” by the beatles. they sing, “Whenever I want to kiss you all I’ve got to do is call and you’ll come running home… And the same goes for me,If you ever want me at all, all you’ve got to do is call and I’ll come running home.” I wanted to record that and send it to her to let her know I would always be there for her.

    After 2 and a half years I was at the library and I suddenly got a feeling she wasn’t doing well. The feeling was so strong I said to myself, “Thelma’s going to die”.

    For two weeks I was still scared to look her up, but then I looked up her sister and she told me that 2 weeks earlier she had a heart attack and was in the ICU. Thelma’s spirit called me.

    She was pretty much in a coma. The doctors were trying to talk her son Michael into pulling the plug. They told him that when she squeezed your hand it was probably involuntary. they said that when she looked at you she probably didn’t know who she was looking at. They said that when she was asked to move her eyebrows or toes she didn’t respond.She had a breating tube in her mouth. She wouldn’t be able to speak even if she was lucid.

    I went into her room alone and tearfully poured out my heart to her. For 2 and a half hours I poured out my heart like I had never done to anyone before. Her tears rolled down her face. I asked her to wiggle her toes and eyebrows and she did so.
    After seeing her I left to go back to work a 3 hour distance from the hospital. she continued to get more and more lucid. they were able to take out the breathing tube and she was able to speak to her sister, children and mother. She got to hold her seven week old granddaughter. then she died.
    After she died I felt a tremendous weight of guilt. For a year I cried night and day. Then I had a dream of her. She was briskly walking away from me. I kept telling her I wanted to talk to her and she just kept walking not even acknowledging I was there. I woke up and the sheets where my head was laying was wet from me crying in my sleep.
    I told my counselor of the dream and she gave me 9 possible meanings of it. I knew none of those meanings were correct. So all day I pondered the meaning of it.

    Eventually while I was at starbucks I suddenly realized that the whole reason I was crying night and day for a year was because I couldn’t forgive my self. I realized I wasn’t crying for her. I realized I was crying for myself. A starbucks worker noticed that I was just about ready to bawl and she introduced herself to me. I told her I just realized that I had been crying all that time because I couldn’t forgive myself. She told me that I would problably never forgive myself until I realized I was a better person because of her. Immediatly I knew that was the answer.

    I went home and just sat for hours looking at Thelma’s picture. Then suddenly I started to wail. I kept saying over and over, “Oh Thelma”. It was the first time I cried for her.
    I checked myself into the psyche ward at the hospital. I’m an insulin dependant diabetic. When I get that depressed I forget to take my insulin. I needed to be hospitalized so that they could make sure I took my insulin.

    While in there they gave me info about grief. The info said that guilt was one of the stages of grief. After 3 days I had another dream. she approached me and kissed and hugged me. I woke up and knew the dream meant I was starting to forgive myself.

    It was then that I realized I did make ammends with. I made ammends when I poured out my heart to her at the hospital. And she told me she loved me. She told me she loved me the only way she could. Thelma’s Tears told me she loved me.

    And that’s the ending of my book. It’s why I call it Thelma’s Tears.

    I still have a long way to happiness. But I’ve overcome the major obsticle of guilt. I now no longer cry for myself. I cry for her.

  4. Thanks all for these touching comments. When I read through them I am touched by the way memoir writing helps us reach out and open up, and connect with each other. Of course I’d rather be with you all in a physical room sharing these lovely sentiments, but I am also grateful for the sharing that is taking place across space and time right “here.”


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