What It Feels Like to 'Live in Past Tense' Since Losing My Brother


Eleven years, that is how long is has been since I lost my brother. Eleven years, so in a way, I’m just getting started. Last year I was able to conceptualize what I have come to know as the “lost years of grief” — to me, the time that lies between loss and awakening are the lost years. During that time, in my experience, you are so thick in your grief you don’t really know up from down. You are just going through the motions. In understanding my own “lost years” I have found myself spending a great deal of time in reflection. Understanding the “lost years” exist is just a starting point. It was a place where I woke up in my life, after loss, and started tearing everything up. Trying this or that, just to see what fit, what felt right. I didn’t really know who I was anymore. I just had an image of who I thought I was going to be, and nothing seemed to fit anymore. I had to try to understand my life, my new life after loss. In that time I have come to learn and understand a lot about loss.

Firstly, loss is unpredictable. How each person will handle their grief is unknown. Sometimes a memory will make you laugh or smile, and another time it will leave you in a corner crying, unable to recover. Sometimes we can talk about it, and sometimes we can’t. Some days are tolerable, and others are not. Why is this? Who knows. Unpredictability, to me, that is at the very core of loss, it is the true nature of loss. In loss I have found that every emotional stage of grief, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance, is experienced, but how they each look and for how long a person will exist in each stage or how many times they will revisit it, that is unpredictable. I didn’t even realize I was going through stages of loss until much later. I knew the stages existed, but I didn’t really understand them as I do now. They were just a concept. I think you have to go through them all before you really believe they exist. As with many things, you don’t really fully understand an experience when you are in the thick of it. It’s not until after you have emerged that you can look upon the experience with a clean set of eyes.

Besides its fervent unpredictability, I have learned that loss is uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable, unexplainable feeling. It’s one of the most uncomfortable things for people to talk about. The weight of not really knowing what to say or how to approach the topic. Yet it feels like the people who have lost, who are grieving, who are broken, ache to find comfort and connection. Almost like loss is some secret club that no one really wants to belong to but once you join you look around trying to find your fellow soldiers without really drawing attention to yourself. Why? Because it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to grieve because it’s vulnerable, and vulnerability is terrifying. So often we save this grief for a safe place, a safe time. Away from judgment or questioning. Maybe we bring it out once a year, on the anniversary of loss, on the birthday of the deceased, in those moments when a memory is triggered, but only then, because who wants to be uncomfortable? Although, what I have learned is the more we talk about it, the more we write about it, the more honest and open conversations we have about it, as uncomfortable as it may be, the more healing actually takes place.

But of everything I have learned and experienced about in loss the most all encompassing aspect of loss is its ability to freeze time. Hold you hostage in history. Loss is past tense. It has been so hard to work though living in past tense. Life after loss has left so many of my moments in past tense. Stuck in a memory. Wondering how things would be different for me and my loved ones if that loss didn’t take place. What about my brother’s friends, would their lives be different? Where would I live? What would I be doing with my life? Would I have more direction? More clarity? Would I be happy?

Grief changes you at your core. You can try to fight it, but it’s nearly impossible. It doesn’t mean the new you can’t have a remarkable life, but it does mean you will have to constantly battle the weight of a life in past tense. There is a point though, right, a place in time where we learn to stop living in past tense and find our spot in the present? A time when we give ourselves permission for that? I’m asking because really, I don’t know. I may have emerged from my “lost years,” but I haven’t stopped living in past tense. Loss has a way of just keeping us there, stuck in the past. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to hold those memories and to ask those questions. I think it’s part of the healing process, but I think there is a fine line between past tense and present tense when it involves loss. Normally it is so clear, but it’s hard to give yourself permission to move forward. In many ways moving from past to present is a form of acceptance. But as I have learned, acceptance takes on many forms, and just because you have accepted aspects of a loss to be true doesn’t mean you won’t revisit acceptance in other areas of that loss. So maybe this is where I am now, 11 years later, learning how to give myself permission to be present in my life while still cherishing every moment and memory from the past. Who knows how long it will take to make this transition, but as is the nature of loss I can only imagine it will continue to be uncomfortable and unpredictable.

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