I’ve spent thirty-two years with the mistaken belief that because my brother died in my childhood, he didn’t really exist. Strangely, I always had him in my thoughts and on my mind, but it was more like a fantasy life I was experiencing, wishing him to be there, but believing he was only a figment of my own imagination. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was practicing this disassociation routinely until I wrote a blog post this year about my experience living and loving a terminally ill sibling and shared it on Facebook. The responses I received were overwhelming. Childhood friends and my brother’s teachers all reaching out to me, sharing their own memories of my brother, Mike. I got choked up reading these online conversations reliving our experiences with Mike from so long ago. I read stories I wasn’t even aware of, because I had stopped talking about my brother in seventh grade when he died. Only the handful of closest friends ever saw my tears when describing the searing pain tearing my heart to pieces as I continued to grow up. But when reading the responses on Facebook, I realized by not talking about my brother or his death openly, I had created a safe, pain free environment where that trauma did not exist. High school and college friends wrote responses that they didn’t even know I had a brother! Didn’t know I had a brother? I had successfully disassociated from that pain.
The saddest part of disassociation, is that you have severed the bond to reality. I needed that reality back to piece my heart together again. Sitting in a grief counseling session, I had met others who also had a searing pain, burning them from inside whenever the thought of loss was near. One of the participants, Sarah, was so quiet, looking down most of the time when others were sharing. When my day arrived to sit in the “hot seat” (a name our group had jokingly referred to when the counselor was able to push you past that wall of fire in your chest), I was shocked by the amount of words I spilled out, describing my hand as I lifted up a stuffed frog my great grandmother had sewn for my brother when he was an infant, but still slept with every night. My hand bringing the green corduroy frog with brown button eyes down to my brother’s chest as I said, “ribbit, ribbit, ribbit”, hopping the frog up and down several more times while my brother looked up at me from his deathbed. My mother had told me earlier that day that he was going to pass soon, but I didn’t let those words sink in as I said goodnight to my older brother, my playmate, my best friend. I laid the soft frog upon his chest, but thought better of it, and moved the frog to his side, fearing the light weight of the stuffed animal would impede his ability to raise and lower his chest to breathe and suffocate him. That simple goodnight was the last time I spoke with my beloved brother. Twelve years of love gone by morning. The relief I felt from sharing those words, that experience aloud, lifted a weight so heavy from the depths of my soul. Little did I know that Sara, that quiet, beautiful soul, would soon bring my brother back to me.
On our last day together in the grief group, Sarah walked in with a bright, cheerful gift bag. She sat next to me and presented the gift to me. I was surprised, and shook my head. “You didn’t need to get me anything…” I nervously replied to her gesture. “Just open it.” Sarah had reassured me. I separated the tissue paper and reached in, lifting up a stuffed frog. I looked at her, her radiant smile, the strength in her eyes. I looked back in the gift bag and retrieved a handwritten letter, addressed to me. The cursive letters spoke about Sarah’s baby boy who had passed away as an infant, but had been given a stuffed frog. A stuffed frog that he was buried with, just like my loved brother. The family member who had given the frog to her son told her frog was an acronym for Fully Rely On God, because that’s the amount of strength needed when you lose someone you love. I looked again at the frog she had gotten for me, and I realized the importance of this gift. It reminded me that Mike was real. Mike was part of my life, and even though he left this earth before me, it doesn’t mean that I no longer had a brother. I did. I always will. I hold onto this frog and feel the realness of my brother’s existence, the bond I share with Sarah, and the strength I have to overcome this pain by relying on God.