Fifteen years ago my life changed forever.
Overnight I went from having the fortune of being born into a really close family – with a twin sister and two older brothers – to the despair when it all came crashing down in an instant.
Nothing prepares you for this moment.
There are no guides as to how to stay afloat emotionally when the world you always knew and felt safe in disappears with no advance warning.
I have come to realize over the years that sharing experiences, supporting others, and realizing that you aren’t alone in your grief can really help in coping with it in your everyday life.
When Your World Collapses Around You
Let me rewind the clock 15 years when I was at university, sitting in my house watching TV on a cold Tuesday night in Leeds.
The phone rung. It was my mum to say something I was never expecting – my brother was missing in Nicaragua.
He had gone on a three-week trip to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. My brother was quite the traveler and used to travel alone a lot, preferring the experiences he had meeting new people along the way.
The strange thing is how instantly I felt the shock. I started shaking and had to throw the phone to my friend to get more information as I had a sense this was serious from the outset.
It was only afterward I found out that it had been six days since he had been seen, having gone on a hike at a volcano on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua with an American friend he’d met a few days earlier.
In some ways, the rest of that evening was a haze, but in other ways, I can vividly remember every little detail.
The next few weeks back in London were even more of a haze. The support from our community was incredible and somehow kept us going through the nightmare that was unfolding.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing your brother’s face on the front pages of the papers and being interviewed by the national newspapers, all not knowing whether I would ever see my brother again.
Just over two long weeks later, the worst news was confirmed by the Costa Rican ambassador.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt a numbness like it – my whole world as I knew it came crashing down around me and I felt powerless to know what to do.
The weeks and months that passed after were a blur. I went back to university to complete my degree which was an intense challenge, but one I wanted to do surrounded by close friends instead of deferring for a year.
I had panic attacks, and the grief would hit me in ways I could never have expected. Sometimes even laughing was a release of the unbelievable emotional trauma we had and still go through to this very day.
I’ve been to two sets of counseling – once to get me through those initial months and another two years later when I went through another struggle to keep it together.
The truth is – people don’t talk openly about death.
One of the hardest things I had to learn very quickly was how hard it was dealing with the reactions of others.
We were extremely lucky that our family had such a strong support network and so many amazing friends who have always been there for me.
But there were some that didn’t know what to say so would avoid you instead.
Every time I meet a new person, whether it’s a new boss, colleague, or friend, I have the dread of how and when I might tell them about this life event that completely shaped the person I am today.
The Grief Cycle
Reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Option B” a few years ago was incredibly inspirational and helpful in realizing that every emotion and stage you go through with grief is normal – there is no one way to deal with it.
Some people like to be open; others like to keep it to themselves.
For anyone either going through a tragic or hard event in their lives, or who knows someone close to them who is, I can’t recommend this book enough.
One of the many parts of the book I took away was when she says that all you sometimes need to ask people who are experiencing grief is “How are you today?”.
These words can be so comforting when so many are at a loss of what to say.
In a sense, the hardest part to deal with is several months and years after when it’s not top of people’s mind anymore.
At the start, everyone rallies around, but then life moves on and it becomes more of a distant memory for some. Yet you deal with it every day and it can affect your day or mood, often when you’re least expecting it.
I’ve probably been through every emotion there is – from unimaginable sadness to anger to despair.
My sister likens grief to a model linked to change management called the change curve.
The “grief cycle” is however ongoing, and one that never ends but you can be at different points of your grief journey at any given time.
Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to be for the rest of that day when you wake up in the morning.
I find this comforting, knowing that every day it can change, and a moment or day of despair can be followed by a day with a smile.
Coping with Grief
There is no correct formula on how to deal with grief, and with the right support things do get more manageable – but you will never be the exact person you were before.
The thing is that as time goes on I don’t think of it every moment of every day.
However, there are moments when the finality of it all just hits me – sometimes when I’m least expecting it.
And at other times, a trigger like hearing one of my brother’s favorite bands can take my mind back to either happier times when I can smile or complete sadness at not being able to see him anymore.
Over the years, I’ve learned some important lessons on how to cope with grief in my everyday life.
Not all of them will resonate, but hopefully sharing them will help those that are going through something similar.
Remember, some of these may be helpful to you at different parts of your grief cycle and others may be more relevant in several years or not at all – everyone is different.
1. Make the Time
We all lead busy lives, and it’s easy for time to go by without making the time to remember and reflect.
When I ignored it, it sometimes came out in ways that weren’t constructive.
Schedule time to talk about that person – whether it’s to a family member or friend, or to a counselor. It really helps to cope.
When I went to counseling, I was able to put aside my thoughts each week about my brother and continue my day-to-day knowing that I had that time allotted to talk about my feelings of loss.
2. There Is No Right Way
One of the biggest things I learned in the immediate years after our loss was how differently everyone in my family dealt with grief.
Some people wanted to talk about it, others didn’t.
For example, every year on the anniversary of my brother’s passing, we found ourselves having the same conversation about what to do – do I take the day off work, do we go to the cemetery, do we stay at home, etc.
Everyone had different views, and accepting these differences is important.
3. Keep Their Memory Alive
I have found it really helpful to look for different ways to keep my brother’s memory alive in our family, whether that’s bringing him up in conversation with friends or various annual traditions that have become a part of my life.
One day that is always a hard one is my brother’s birthday, which was Christmas Eve.
The first year, I had an idea about letting off balloons in the garden to mark it. It’s turned into an annual tradition that we do every year with the family either in the park or someone’s garden.
The beauty of this is that it can be done anywhere in the world. There have been a couple of times when some of the family have been abroad and we’ve done it together over Facetime in different countries.
It’s always an emotional time letting them go into the sky together, but one which I have come to really appreciate.
4. Channel Your Energy into Something Positive
I have also found over the years that having something that makes you passionate allows you to step outside of your grief and focus your emotions into something positive.
For me, it was running. It has become my “me” time and reflecting time.
I ran the London marathon in memory of my brother 10 years ago, raising thousands along the way for charities with causes close to my brother’s heart.
We also established a trust in memory of my brother and have organized various fundraisers from music nights to quizzes, raising money to fund musical centers for children in his name in various countries (he was a passionate guitar player).
5. You’re Not Alone
If there’s one thing I wish I had 15 years ago, it was more places to turn to for advice on how to cope when grief becomes a part of your daily life.
Sometimes people think that because you’re going through it, you’re equipped to know how to deal with it. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
Now there are lots more places to turn to help you get through the toughest times.
There are various podcasts, meetups, and books that talk about grief. I would encourage you or anyone you know going through a loss to use these resources to help.
I’ve mentioned Option B and there’s a full website with stories from other people who are going through grief with groups you can join and many other resources.
To Sum Up
The truth is – you will laugh, you will have good times again, but you will always have that part of you that isn’t quite what it used to be.
There’s no one formula to follow, but if there’s one thing that you take away from this article it would be to set time aside in your life to talk, write, think about it – in whatever format works for you.
And when you are able to, look back and be grateful for having that person in your life for the amount of time that they were here.
For me, I consider myself hugely lucky to have been given a brother like Nick and will always be grateful to have been (and still be) his younger sister.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita