There Were Three of Us
January 29, 2023
I was 22 years old when my brother died.
My husband was only 21, and we had been married less than three months. I wouldn’t know it until years later, but he would look back on that day, the day that he had to tell me my brother died, as the day that the marriage vows became real. When you stand at the altar and say, “For better or for worse, in good times and in bad," you don’t expect the bad times to hit just a few months after the honeymoon.
I had been at the mall with a friend, and I remember I bought a red tank top. I came in the door of my apartment to find my husband Seth on the phone with someone. This was back before we had cell phones. As I came in he said something like, “She just got home.” And then he said goodbye and hung up. I was standing there when he said, “That was your dad. He said Josh died in his sleep last night.”
I began to cry and said, “No, he didn’t. No, he didn’t!”
Seth hugged me. And we cried. My husband, at only 21 years old, when the worst hit, knew what to do. That’s why I married him.
Sometime later I would return that stupid red tank top I bought at the mall. I would never be able to wear it and not be reminded of the day I learned that my brother died.
It’s kind of odd that I’ve never wanted to write about my brother’s death. I’m usually always looking for personal things I can write about to help someone else. I think I have trouble writing this story because I’m not sure what lessons I’ve learned. What I do know is that this is tucked away in my history, and every once in a while I wonder what my brother would be doing now if he were still here. What kind of man would he be? I hope it would be someone that was less troubled. Someone who could love himself and find joy.
My brother died in August of 1998, just days after his 24th birthday. He died in his bed. It wouldn’t be until the autopsy report arrived in October that we would understand the cause of death: overdose of painkillers. Based on the phone conversations he had with his girlfriend the night he died, I don’t think it was intentional.
I sent my brother a belated birthday card in the mail, and when I learned that he died, I desperately hoped he had received it before then. We weren’t very close and never talked on the phone, so I wanted him to have gotten that card with the note that said, “I love you.” Turns out, he didn’t get it. My mom returned it to me unopened, much later.
For a long time I wondered who I had to tell about my brother’s death. Meaning, if someone asked if I had siblings, did I have to tell them I had an older brother who died? It was such a painful and personal thing, did even strangers and acquaintances have to know I had been through that? But I was conflicted, because if I didn’t mention him at all, it was like a lie. I wasn’t the oldest growing up, I was the middle child. There were three of us. At some point over the years I got comfortable just saying, “I have a younger sister,” when people asked about siblings, just leaving him out. I think he would understand.
I just realized that I have now lived more years without him than I did with him. Wow. That’s strange.
I wasn’t very close to my brother. Because he was troubled. He taught me how to steal candy from 7-11 when we were in elementary school. He struggled in school. He sometimes lied. He argued with my dad. He wrestled with drugs and alcohol, which would eventually be the end of him. He just made me nervous. I was a rule-follower, people-pleaser, peace-maker, and I just didn’t understand him. When we were teenagers I was scared to know what he was up to.
But I also remember how I made him laugh during family game nights. He laughed so hard. And he called me Chris. He was the only one who called me that. I still think of him when I scramble eggs, because he showed me how to whisk them until you can’t see any runny parts anymore. I remember driving around Poway, our hometown, with him in his van one night after he put a new stereo in, blasting the music. He was happy that night. I remember when we were small my little sister and I used to beg him to play “Shark” where he would pretend to be the shark and our bed was the boat and we would scream as he lunged at us. I remember how handsome he looked at my wedding, which was only a few months before he died.
When I reflect on what I have learned from my brother’s death, there are a few true, real things:
-God is still good. I saw my parents continue to trust God and proclaim His goodness, in spite of losing their son. We can accept both the joy and the pain in life and know that God is loving us through it all.
-People who love you share the pain. My best friend insisted on traveling with Seth and me to San Diego for the funeral. I didn’t ask her to do that. But she knew. She was only 21 at the time. How did she know what to do? She loved me and hurt for me and faced the funeral with me. When I met her four years earlier, the beginning of freshman year of college, we were both music majors auditioning for placement with private music teachers. We were just brand new college kids then, with no idea that I would need her to walk with me through tragedy just a few years later.
-I married a good man. Like I said earlier, I didn’t know how hard that was for him to bear the responsibility of caring for his new, young wife in facing the death of loved one. But he knew what to do, and he has continued to prove over the last 24 years that he will always take care of me, no matter what we face. I remember at my wedding I told myself, “I will never allow myself to look back and say, ‘I must have married the wrong person,’ because no matter what happens later, right now I am 100% sure I am making the right decision.” I told myself that, anticipating that one day our marriage might be rocky and I might doubt whether he was ever right for me. I wanted to be sure I would know that the doubt that popped up was a lie. But, it turns out I have never had to question whether I married the right man. He has always been the man I needed. Even in the beginning, at three months in when he had to tell me that my brother died.
-Losing someone helps us relate to others who have lost a loved one. Not long after Josh died, another student at my college lost her brother. While I didn’t have the perfect words to say to ease her pain, I could at least say I had been through something similar and that I cared and was willing to talk if that would help. It just makes us all feel less alone when there are others who have walked a similar path. A friend of mine recently lost his daughter, and my mom, who lost her son 24 years ago, sent my friend a book on grief called Tear Soup. He said it encouraged him right when he needed it. We aren’t alone, right? Every grief we bear has been borne by someone before us.
Well...for now that's all I need to say about my brother’s death. I don’t know if this will help anyone else, but it helped me to sit here and remember and miss him and cry. Growing up with him is part of who I am. And losing him is also part of who I am.
I remember when there were three of us.