My 23rd birthday was my first birthday without my brother. Nine months prior, he died by suicide after a years-long battle with drug addiction. Often, first birthdays without someone who has died can be brutal, filled with anxiety and dread. But for me, I truly was looking forward to that day. I needed the distraction of living my life. It was an antidote to my grief.
In the bustling and noisy beer hall, I bounced from person to person checking in with the usual conversations, “How is work going?” “How’s your new apartment?” “Crazy about this weather, right?” No mention of my brother, his death, or any emotions at all. I liked it that way. It felt safe, for both me and for my friends who I certainly did not want to burden with that buzz-kill topic. If you asked me, I was doing better than fine; I was winning grief. If anything, I deserved a trophy for my performance. “She crushed grief” my plaque would read. Sure, I missed him, but death is a part of life, and I needed to move on. I had stuff to do.
A knife tapped against a half-drunk beer. One of my friends stood on the bench of the wooden farmhouse table we were inhabiting for the night. “I’d like to raise a glass to the strongest person we all know. Happy birthday, Jesse!” Glasses all over the table clinked against each other. Friends pointed their beers in my direction. I beamed with pride, thinking: “Yep, I really am nailing this grief thing. I am happy!” I truly believed that I was the strongest person I knew, and maybe I was. But it certainly wasn’t because I was “over” my grief.
Why speed and healing don’t mix
I did not choose this strength. This ability to move on was forcefully put on me by societal standards for sibling grievers. The faster I did, the faster I’d “win.” Besides the fact that talking about grief is taboo for everyone, I was also a sibling of the person who died. Often, siblings are called “the forgotten mourners” because the pain we carry is not as acknowledged as it is for parents and caregivers. “Be strong for your parents,” many of us hear at funerals, and again during the the months following the death of our sibling.
So being strong, or rather looking strong, was really a case of simply not acknowledging my grief with others. Also, it didn’t actually feel so good once I was alone with my thoughts. It took me a few years to realize that I didn’t want to be strong anymore. I wanted to be authentic in the ways I showed up in the world and honest about the pain I carried. I wanted to be seen. Author and amazing human Brene Brown says, “When we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked.” And I may not have known it, but I was about to get my ass kicked…in a good way.
I decided to volunteer at grief camp.
Letting others hold my pain
When I arrived at camp I saw on the orientation schedule that there was a staff “sharing circle,” where volunteers would be able to sit and share about the person that died in their life. I was suddenly terrified. I had spent so many years fixated on proving that I was “strong” (read: hiding my pain) that I couldn’t imagine what I might say. Was the toxic positivity that I enveloped myself in starting to crumble?
When the small group sat down to start the sharing circle, the therapist facilitating the circle reminded us that we did not need to share if we didn’t want to. I resorted to my usual thinking. “These people don’t want to hear me talk about grief anyway.”
As each person shared their story–and there were grieving siblings there too– I could feel something shift in me. I realized the power of a safe-space where grief and stories about people dying weren’t a burden, and weren’t ignored. Carrying my grief had been such a lonely experience, but now by sharing my pain, I saw that others could help me hold some of it. There was a comfort in the muck. It was finally my turn. All eyes were on me as people waited with anticipation to hear what was about to come out of my mouth. I went for it.
“My brother Jordan died by suicide.” And for the first time, I realized the true definition of strength.
Jesse Moss is the Senior Marketing Manager at Experience Camps, a nonprofit that champions the nation’s 5.6 million grieving children and works to create a more “grief smart” culture. Drawing on her experience as a Digital Strategist in the Obama Administration, she also oversees the nonprofit’s fast-growing TikTok channel — reaching millions with humor, empathy, and joy as well as grief.