February 16, 2018

How Writing can help us Tame the Grief Monster.

I wrote the first letter to my brother just a few days after he died of an overdose at the age of 21.

Dear Will,

I can’t believe this is real.

I love you so much that it hurts. I can’t imagine going through the rest of my life without seeing your beautiful blue eyes or watching you do your crazy polka/farmer dance or belting out your punk version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” in that obnoxious yet lovable voice that only you could get away with.


Words had always been my preferred form of release—after my grandma’s unexpected death when I was 15, I’d sat on my bedroom floor, my back pressed against my mattress, and wrote her poems while tears spilled down, leaving little ripples in the paper and smudging the ink. And I’d kept a journal for years, writing entries almost daily. But every time I thought about sitting down with my journal and committing the words my brother is dead to ink, I felt like sand was filling my lungs.

But a letter to him? That felt doable.

Hi Sweetie, I’d start. I still can’t believe this is happening, that you’re gone.

With the soft spiral of shock, distant memories of my brother and I kept surfacing, and I wrote them down, my fingers flying across the keyboard to capture them before they disappeared again. In knowing there would be no more memories of us, that we wouldn’t enjoy the long, winding future together that I’d assumed we’d have, the ordinary moments turned sacred.

Remember when you came to visit me in Maine, and we went to the beach? You ate greasy pizza in the thick, humid air. We sang Eazy E songs at the top of our lungs in my car, windows down—us two Alaskan kids in the thick, sticky summer of Maine. One day, when I was working at the coffee shop and I’d forgotten my keys at home, you brought them to me. I remember waiting on the sidewalk for you, scanning the distance, and suddenly, there you were, walking toward me, and it made me grin—seeing my little brother.

In those first few months, I needed to cry every day. If I didn’t, I could feel my grief waiting for me like a hungry animal. When I fed it, by making the space to cry, I felt a pool of relief afterward. But if I ignored that clogged feeling in my chest, it would nip at my heels, circle around me flashing its teeth—it mutated into something frightening, something that might eat me alive.

The quickest way to tame the grief monster was to write letters to my brother.

By writing to my brother, I found a way to dive right into the muscle of my pain, softening the thick knots of ache. Sometimes, my mom sat at the table next to me, tapping out her own thoughts, and we’d sit there sniffling and wiping our cheeks, sometimes sharing parts of our letters with each other when we were done. Other days, I snuck off to my childhood bedroom and sat cross-legged on my bed with the computer resting across my thighs. Alone, I could allow myself to cry harder. I could let the dense, animal sounds of loss stretch out, or muffle them with the comforter on my bed.

Dear Will,

I can’t believe it’s been a month since we found out about you. I’m sitting here listening to the Rolling Stones CD you apparently absconded from the library.

God, I miss you so much. Sometimes, I’ll start to feel normal for a few minutes, and then I remember that you’re gone, and I lose it. I don’t know how this is supposed to ever get better.

I went over to a friend’s last night, which was nice—but it was so hard to see her with her little brother. They’re so lucky to have each other, and I’m glad they do, but it hurts so much to be face-to-face with what I no longer have. Then I think that at least I got to have you for a while, and at least we were close. I tell myself to try and look at the bright side.

Then I say, screw the bright side for now.

The letters wove a cord that kept me connected to my brother. Later, I learned I was forging what grief theorists call a “continuing bond.” Instead of “working through grief” and eventually reaching a stage of acceptance, the concept of a continuing bond acknowledges that when someone dies, we can still maintain a relationship with the person who has died, rather than view the relationship as severed. It’s a different relationship, of course—not one I ever would’ve chosen. But by writing letters to my brother, in those minutes when I could capture the glistening, breaching memories, when I cried or made jokes or even raged at him, I was continuing our relationship. In the letters, I was still Will’s sister. I still had access to all of our shared history, our inside jokes.

Dear Will,

Grandma and Grandpa came over last night. I missed you so much. They were eating pork with hot mustard and sesame seeds, and Grandma spilled, like, hundreds of sesame seeds all over her legs and the chairs. I knew if you’d been here, we’d have gotten in trouble for laughing. I really wanted to grab a piece of pork, dip it in mustard, and just swipe it up the length of her leg.

And, like any big sister, sometimes I raged at my brother.

Dear Will,

I’m tired, I’m lost, and I’m mad. We just found out that you were drinking after using heroin—that was stupid. I’m pissed tonight. You really messed up. 

You made a string of selfish choices that left us all devastated and desperate.

Writing these letters helped me at the time, and it helps me now, 19 years later.

Those terrible, metallic months of early grief are long fogged over. Time has diminished the pain and smoothed over its jagged edges.

But time also dimmed my memories. Re-reading those letters is like flipping through a photo album of my grief. I revisit moments I otherwise would’ve lost: the strange drowning dreams of early shock and loss, but also so many sweet moments between my brother and I. My tenderness and love for him is so raw and vivid on the page.

There we are, I whisper. The cord connecting my brother and I, the one that so often fades into the background of my life, flickers and warms. There we are.



The Specific Qualities of Sibling Grief—How it Morphs & Marks Us.


Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron



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