It’s been five years and five months exactly since the day Howard, my baby brother, died in a Mississippi fraternity house fire. I’ve probably had ten new cell phones since that time, mostly due to a bad habit in law school of wedging them between my ear and shoulder while doing dishes, and dropping them into the dishwater. Somehow, in all those contact transfers at Verizon stores across the country, Howard’s cell phone information has come along to each new phone. And so I see his number when I scroll through my contacts looking for folks whose names begin with “H.” Apparently a contact list is not like a computer desktop, where every now and again you’re asked if you want to remove unused icons.
And of course, I don’t. I don’t want to delete Howard’s number from my phone, though what I want matters little.
A friend new to grief asked me to tell him what I know about grieving and all I can really say is this: the thing about grief is that what you want simply doesn’t matter. Grief makes you do things you don’t want to do, things you have no intention of doing, things that make you question your autonomy over your own mind. Grief does not care that you have read the books on grieving, that you know what grief’s stages are, that you are informed. Grief does not even acknowledge that you have made bargains with God, Buddha, and the devil himself in an effort to evict grief from your life. Grief does with you as it wants.
When Howard died, I lived in a new town where I hardly knew anyone, and where first impressions counted — I was in my first week of law school, and I know of few groups of people collectively snarkier than a pack of 1Ls about to battle it out for law review, moot court, and clerkships. All I really wanted was to be able to hold it together in public. So of course I cried very little in the privacy of my own home. Grief caused me to weep behind my laptop screen in the library as I checked the Ole Miss football scores on espn.com, to sob over the processed cheese in the gas station cooler, and to practically keen during a lecture on wrongful death that I could not leave because I was already skating on thin ice with the school’s mandatory attendance policy.
Grief, this mystical process that was supposed to help me to say goodbye, that thousands of books are written about and hundreds of chintzy sympathy cards are created in honor of, all-powerful grief didn’t give a fig what I wanted.
As they say, time passed. I believe I re-planted the flag over the territory of my own mind when the day arrived, about three years about Howard’s death, that a new co-worker asked me if I had siblings, and I replied, quite calmly, yes I do, I have two brothers, one living. And I smiled at her. And tears did not come to my eyes. This is not to say it was a happy occasion, telling this woman that I had one less brother to boss around, to dance with at my wedding, to fix things for me, to drink champagne with at his wedding. But it was a turning point in what I wanted versus what grief seemed to want.
Nearly five and a half years later, grief still won’t let me delete Howard’s number from my cell phone, but I speak frequently, and joyfully, about my brother with strangers and friends alike, in public and in private, and I can generally hold it together. I have come to believe that grief now wants me to talk about Howard and to honor the nearly twenty years I shared with him. And that therefore, there is a purpose to all that grief wants. Howard is not forgotten, and I cry only from pain in pilates class.
To my friend who is struggling with what grief wants, versus what he wants, I’ll echo what my mother says about grief: you give up, or you go on. Go on.
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