Content Warning: This piece contains mentions of suicide.
What a moment we’re in.
It feels tone-deaf to talk about this now. But, as I grapple with what is appropriate and what isn’t during this chaotic, unprecedented, and uncertain time, I realize that nothing happens in a vacuum. The experiences we’re all feeling around COVID-19 are tied to everything that makes us, us. Have you lost someone before and are just terrified to have it happen again? Have you worried about how you will make it through the day, let alone the month because your job was ripped away? Have you had to separate before from friends or family to protect your physical – or emotional – health? What is making you, you during this?
Today marks the 20th anniversary of my brother, Brian’s, death.
20 years and four days since I last heard his voice. 20 years, one week and a day since I last saw him. We were two college students just trying to figure out our places in this world, together. My brother, Brian, was wickedly smart, had an amazing, dry wit, an unexpectedly low bass singing voice, a terrible layup, and was a great friend. He made you laugh, challenged what you knew or thought you knew, and just made you feel good. He was my other half. And then all of a sudden, I was alone.
It was just me. Actually, I was surrounded by people – the most supportive people in the world – incredible family, friends from near and far, acquaintances, and people I didn’t even know but who wanted to know me and wanted to tell me how much Brian had meant to them. I couldn’t have been any luckier in those days after Brian died. But still, I was alone. It had always been “Brian and Alison” and now I was just Alison. Just Alison to navigate the vastly different grieving processes of divorced parents. Just Alison figuring out how I would raise my future kids without the uncle, and cousins, I always knew they’d have. I had created a path for myself to that point that I was proud of and I was sure about. I was going to have the confidence in college I never had in high school. I was going to double major in psychology and math because who does that? I was going to take Italian so I could do my junior year abroad in Italy. I was finally going to lose all the weight I had hated on myself for as long as I could remember. I was going to graduate happy, find a satisfying career, have some kids, and grow old with Brian by my side.
And then my plans were gone. Out the window, with one phone call in March of my freshman year of college that I will never, ever forget.
I think if nothing else, what I went through when Brian died taught me that life can change in an instant. One moment you are living the life you have planned for yourself, and then the next moment you have no control of what is happening or how you are feeling, or how you are thinking, or acting, or even what is coming out of your mouth.
Until you do.
The chaos in my life and in my head after Brian’s death was uncomfortable and painful. Not only were my plans out the window, but I couldn’t muster up the wherewithal to plan anything else. No Italian, no Italy. No sense of self, no sense of a future. I could barely muster up the energy and competency to get through my days. But it was in that discomfort and chaos that I learned probably the most important lesson I needed to learn: that it is okay to not be okay. That this did not have to be forever. That sometimes I just needed to control what I could, even if it was as basic as choosing a shirt I wanted to wear in the morning. I had to recognize that there is so much out of my control. I had to allow myself to be not the best me all the time and just let life happen. Because one day it was a shirt, and then another day it was a shirt AND pants that belonged together, and another day it was a full outfit and I even brushed my hair. Then it would revert back to just picking socks. But this time I knew I had gotten to that place before, and that I could get there again.
These past two weeks dealing with COVID-19 have for many of us been what Brian’s death was for me. One day we were hearing about a terrible illness ravaging China. Then seemingly in the matter of moments, schools and colleges were closing, workplaces were shutting down, the stock market was unraveling, and we were told to not leave our houses. One day we were Brian and Alison. Then, just Alison. We didn’t ask for it, hadn’t planned for it, and were not prepared for it. But it became a new reality.
I know that this pandemic is hitting everyone so differently. And I know this is going to impact everyone’s long term so, so differently. But I just hope, as the dust settles for all of us, that we have the privilege of looking back on this time. The privilege of thinking of the things that were fun, or funny, or just so ludicrous that you had to laugh not to cry. I hope in 20 years that if nothing else, this experience will have built for us a personal and community resilience to know that we can’t control everything, and that’s okay. Because in case our world falls apart on us again, we need to know that piece by piece and brick by brick we can rebuild it – together. Because that’s how I feel I’ve gotten through these past 20 years. The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, and the times I’ve been able to remember have kept Brian with me.
On this, the 20th anniversary of Brian’s suicide, there are no words. I am holed up in my home with my amazing husband and three young daughters. My attempts at homeschooling are terrible, my ability to work a full day impossible. I’ve been anxious about this day for weeks. I can’t help but cry. I think about his laugh, his tormenting me when we were kids, and his unconditional love. But I know that this, too, shall pass. I don’t know what my life will look like when this pandemic is over. I don’t know what I will look like when this anniversary is done. But I hope that we can all think about these times just like I think about Brian – not what got us here, but the amazing people we get to know and memories we get to make because we made it through.
With sincerity and hope,
Founder and Executive Director