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My 9-year-old brother died when I was 7. Here’s what I’ve learned about grief and life

Jeff Locklear

Twenty one years ago this week, my 9-year-old brother died suddenly when I was 7 and man, I’ve learned a whole lot about the never-ending process of losing someone you really love.

I say “never-ending process” because I’ve learned that grief doesn’t work according to a timeline. Sadness comes and goes when it wants to — and there’s no completion date to this, none that I’ve seen anyway.

I’ll never go back to being the person I was before he died — a death like that doesn’t just change parts of you, it changes all of you, and it took me decades to accept that.

And sometimes, the most harmless of questions can still leave you paralyzed, even after decades.

I still get the wind knocked out of me when I’m asked how many siblings I have. There is never an answer that feels right. If I tell the truth, it immediately saturates and saddens the conversation, or I lie, and a little part of me shatters with guilt.

As a culture, we’re horrible at addressing death and grief. We’re one of the most depressed countries in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and yet, we have no idea how to talk about death. Instead, we squirm, change the subject and avoid the real conversations that could actually help someone grieving.

In the years following my brother’s death, hundreds of people said hundreds of the same automatic phrases like “time heals everything” and “everything happens for a reason,” that just didn’t help, despite best intentions.

If you love someone who is grieving, the best thing you can do for them is listen, especially if you’ve never grieved before.

I’ve learned there is no such thing as bargaining, but it’s OK to find and accept good things that have come out of the tragedy — and it doesn’t mean you miss your loved one any less.

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I’ve learned to be grateful — especially for the big brother who made me laugh every day I can remember for seven years. Thankful for the kid who was obsessed with Michael Jordan and loved singing “Semi-Charmed Life” in the car. The blonde with big, bright green eyes who punched a kid at recess for making fun of the girl he liked. The fourth grader who mastered the art of sweet-talking his way out of trouble. My big brother Michael who’d stick up for me and say “let her play” when the neighbors would say the game was “boys only.”

And while I would trade any aspect of my life to have him back, I know his death, caused by medical complications I still don’t fully understand, pushed me to be a better, tougher, and more courageous person, friend, and daughter.

I learned too young that life is short and how important it is to squeeze memories out of days because one day you’ll look back and realize the photos and flashbacks from those moments are finite, and sometimes they’re all you have to hold on to.

So I can’t stress this enough — love often and love hard. Show up when it counts. Take big risks. Look alive and for God’s sake, laugh like you mean it.

Make your moves knowing it could all change in an instant.

Trust me, it can.

Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.
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