Susan Walton

My Brother Died

By Susan Walton

Just over a year ago my only sibling Brian died. He was my older brother by a year and eight days. I had never known life without him. 

Brian died of a sudden heart attack. He was 53 years old. 

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life was to tell my mom that her first-born child had died. 

Brian made his life in China. His family lived an ex-pat lifestyle with a housekeeper, a cook and drivers. When we arrived in Beijing after the numbing 14-hour flight, it seemed we couldn’t ‘do’ anything; even making a cup of tea was taken care of by their Ayi. This meant we were not only isolated with the language barrier but idle with our emotions as well.  

People came by who knew my brother’s daily life more than me. I had hard feelings of being ‘just the sister.’  I felt I couldn’t show more emotion than my mom, Li Hui or the kids. I felt stabs of guilt for not visiting more often.

For the funeral we followed Chinese tradition along with smatterings of Buddhist and Christian faiths. We lit candles and offered food, we burnt fake money on the city streets chanting, “this is for you Brian.”

Our own father had died when we were teenagers and this felt like history repeating itself. I know how important it can be to hear stories about my dad and so sharing our childhood memories is something I can do for TJ, Syndi Li and Daniel. When I look at them I see and feel my brother. I forever want them to know how very proud he would always be of them. 

Back in the Yukon I couldn’t face work. I couldn’t face friends too well either. I hid myself away in the safe comfort of home. Despite knowing it was not a healthy coping mechanism, eating popcorn and watching Netflix for weeks on end was all I could do. 

My work mates were quietly and generously supportive. I struggled to feel in the moment while being an upbeat nurse helping patients through their own issues. 

Soon, I walked into Hospice house. I picked up a felted heart and was warmly greeted. The very air was peaceful. I had healing touch. I felt relaxed for the first time in months. I went to a counselor and talked. She listened. It helped.  

In the spring I was a participant in the GPB photography show ‘This is How I Really Feel.’ It was a vulnerable and powerful process to share my grief with a wider Yukon audience. I posed in my nurses uniform with a black band on my arm. The black band used to signify a period of mourning. I seriously considered adopting the idea as a way to indicate to others to please be just a little more gentle. So strange that we live in a world where we have to ask for kindness. 

As summer came my mom and I choose pink flowering shrubs to plant in honour of Brian. We watched with a strange sadness as two of the shrubs wilted and died soon after. Despite knowing that we all die, that life and death is a part of the whole…it doesn’t make it any easier to walk through. Mom and I reminisce and let our feelings bubble up together. We hug each other and never leave without saying “I love you.”

Within a 6-month period of time we ended of losing 5 family members. My brother, a cousin, 2 uncles and then last March, my husband’s mother Lenore died as well. 

One of the rituals we have continued is the lighting of candles in memory. This provides a moment to reflect, to cry and perhaps to smile with certain memories. The candlelight also feels warming to our hearts. 

Grief is such a personal journey. My husband John and I focus on remembering to be gentle with each other. I feel so very lucky to have him to hold. 

It has been just over a year since Brian died. The fog of grief has slowly lifted. The intense hidden bathroom crying and middle of the night wrenching sadness has abated. I can talk about Brian without my eyes instantly filling up with tears. 

Feelings of sorrow and grief are now tempered with acceptance and a  touch of lightness.  Exercise, being outside and talking with friends helps so much. I can dance and laugh again despite knowing that life will never be the same. I’d like to say I’ve done a lot of ‘work’  on my grief over the past year – but honestly, it has been an up and down affair and I feel like the greatest work is that of time itself.