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Secondhand Loss: Grieving My Identity as a Sister (Guest Post)

Jamie Korf (right) and her late brother, Aaron Christianson (left)

Navigating grief after the loss of a loved one is a long, complex, and deeply personal journey. We’re grateful that writer and editor Jamie Korf has given us a glimpse of hers. In this moving and heartfelt blog post, she reflects on coming to terms with the loss of her brother and recalls an encounter with a stranger that served as a lifeline when she most needed one.

By Jamie Korf

“Do you have any siblings?”

It’s a question that’s polite and unassuming on the outside, usually wielded by a friendly stranger somewhere in between “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” A question I had been asked many times before and answered many times over.

But this time, on that Uber ride home from work one night, it was different. The weight of the driver’s words caused a sudden tightening in my chest, a buckling of the knees. I blinked furiously while trying to catch my breath, playing with different permutations of what my response should be.

Having a sibling was part of my identity–just like my upbringing. My personality, my occupation, my hopes and dreams. And now I needed to suddenly contend with what it meant to be someone’s surviving sister.

Am I an only child? No, that would have erased my little brother’s existence entirely. An only sibling? That doesn’t sound right either. Why isn’t there a label I can quickly and easily affix my situation to?

Seconds before, I was just another passenger engaging in small talk like so many that came before me. Now I was about to be that passenger who experienced an emotional collapse in the backseat of this guy’s car. I need to start coming with a warning label, I thought to myself.

When your grief gets suppressed in the name of work, in the face of the general public, for the sake of your own sanity, your energy takes a blow. By the time 5 p.m. rolls around after putting on a face for nine hours, exhaustion assumes a whole new form. It’s a grueling, full-body sensation. A bit like what I supposed removing a spacesuit feels like.

That night, I just didn’t have it in me to play along with a storyline that everything was fine. It wasn’t fine. So I referred to my brother in the past tense.

“I had a brother. His name was Aaron. He died a few months ago.”

There was a moment of silence. The thing with grief is that being uncomfortable is par for the course. I used to try to fill awkward silences with platitudes and meaningless words. After you’ve experienced the most intense inward pain you can imagine, other socialized feelings—like embarrassment or uneasiness—no longer rate.

So I let the quietness envelop the space we were sharing. I also needed a second to internalize what my words sounded like, now that they were suspended in the air.

I had a brother once.

After a few seconds passed, I searched for his eyes in the rearview mirror. He was staring right back at me, with eyes visibly glistened. I was bracing for pity but what I got in return was empathy. A shared understanding, all in one look, that the thing we all fear the most becomes a reality for so many.

“I am so, so sorry,” he replied with sincerity, a slight tremor in his voice. “I lost my son when he was really young. His mama died, too. I carry that with me wherever I go.” He shared what led to their demise, while I shared the tragedy that was now my story. We wept, we gave each other advice (“take care of yourself, and keep a watchful eye on your parents for that first year”), we exchanged words of comfort. When he pulled up to the entrance of my place, I lunged towards the front seat and threw my arms haphazardly around his neck, my heart aching—but still the opposite of empty.

After that indelible ride home, it occurred to me that there’s a ripple effect with grief. After we experience the loss, there are aftershocks to be had. Sometimes, they come on sneakily. I not only lost my brother that one solemn June day, I lost the history we had, the memories we were supposed to make, and my identity as his sister. And for the first time since my brother’s passing, I had to acknowledge to a stranger that I had a sibling. I had to refer to my brother in the past tense.

But here’s the other thing: the pain of losing my identity in the wake of a loved one’s death was understood by this man. I didn’t feel alone. And I didn’t feel judged for the raw emotion I exhibited. So often, our grief can make those close to us feel uncomfortable. They tell us, well-intentioned as they are, to “look on the bright side” or that our loved one wouldn’t want to see us “like this.” They don’t want to sit in the pain with you. This special stranger sat in my pain with me, as I sat in his for 20 whole minutes. And for a moment, time stopped.

So often we respond to the small talk with polite nothingness, withholding a world of pain. But what if revealing our true selves could serve as a lifeline to the person on the other end?

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