A Goodbye to my Brother in the Classroom


I tried to stop time.

I threw my claws out at this invisible force that keeps moving us forward.

I was pleading with my husband and kept begging, “No, I need a place that it’s still okay, where he’s still here.” I was frantically looking around my yard and my eyes kept going down the lane toward the woods. Down there! The safe place is down there!

My husband, Steven, put his arms around me and my arms dropped. The stuff in my hands fell and as they hit the ground all my efforts to reverse time so I could be back in a world where my brother was still alive vanished.

I dropped to my knees burying my hands into the fresh, green, Spring grass willing the Earth to stop moving, screaming, sobbing.

The woods, I need the safe place. I got up wanting to run but was barely able to walk.

I started down the lane but the words, never see him again, dropped me again. I was suffocating as my lungs continued to function. The gravel was wet under my hands. It was solid, it was real. This is real.

No, it isn’t. Get up, Jenn, get to the safe place.

I got up and started walking purposefully without tears or anymore crying out.

Steven came up to me on the golf cart. I didn’t look at him but told him I wanted to be alone. The walk takes about ten or fifteen minutes.

I looked at Pepper, my dog, and said, “There it is Pep, we’re okay now.”

I sat down on the spot by Purtle creek, felt the sun on my side, breathed deep, steady breathes and then I talked to my brother. When I was done, I leaned in and drank from the cold water, stood up and looked up toward the cloudless sky. Alright Buddy, let’s go tell the kids.

That was Sunday May 7th 2017. My brother was 47 and had died of an apparent heart attack most likely brought on by severe sleep apnea. 47.

Today was Thursday and my first day back in the High School Science classroom that I’ve been long-term substitute teaching in since November. As a teacher, I am always on the hunt for a teachable moment. Today my students learned about grief and how to talk to someone who is suffering through it. I have three classes and for the most part they all got this talk. First hour was, of course, my hardest so they may not have got as much as my last hour class. Here is basically how the lesson went:

On the board, I wrote: The Five Stages of Grief

1.      Denial

2.      Anger

3.      Bargaining

4.      Depression

5.      Acceptance

These are the things I said:

In case anyone doesn’t know I have been gone the last few days because my brother died unexpectedly on Sunday. (I choked on this sentence each time.) When I first started back to school in college I was going to be a social worker when I grew up. (a few chuckled because I was a grown up when I went back) When I went from Ivy Tech to ISU though I switched to teaching because social work would have broken my heart. You are either working in nursing homes or with abused children and I figured I would burn out and then be stuck with a degree I couldn’t do anything with so I switched to teaching. I started out though with a Human Services degree from Ivy Tech. When I was going for this degree I had a psychology class and we discussed the five stages of grief. I was 25 or so when I took this class and I had never heard of the stages of grief before so maybe none of you have either. It starts with denial, shock, a complete disbelief that this is happening, that the person is gone. Every day since Bryan died, this is where I’m at. The first thought when I wake up is, “My brother isn’t dead, that was a dream.” This is how I can get out of the bed, by denying reality.

Let me tell you about Bryan. He was a riot! He was always quick with a joke, loved drinking Corona and fishing. However, he didn’t take very good care of himself. He was a pretty big boy. He loved to build things with his hands and was a self-employed contractor. Since he was self-employed though he had the generic state health insurance. My brother had severe sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is like snoring on steroids. He wouldn’t just snore, he would stop breathing. He could be sleeping in an upright position at my Mom’s house, in her recliner but not reclining and completely stop inhaling. His body would jerk trying to wake himself up before he would snort and growl and be back to sleep. We were all on him about how bad it was. In October or so he went to have a sleep study done. A sleep study is when you spend the night in a clinic and they put all these monitors on you to see how your breathing and heart rate go as your sleeping. They actually woke Bryan up and told him to go home because he was the worst case they had ever seen. So the process was started to get him a Cpap machine. That’s a machine that has a mask and would force him to keep breathing while he slept. The insurance jerked him around because like I said junk insurance and they didn’t want to shell out a couple grand on a machine. In November, our Doctor, we go to the same guy, has Bryan switch to a different company that should work better with his insurance. They jerk him around past December 31. Guess what happens December 31st! The insurance stops and he has to bring tax returns in after he files in January/February and they will put him in the computer as having coverage from January 1st. This is May. He never got around to doing the paperwork. He was working, doing some roofing with a crew and some finishing work so he just didn’t make time. Mom and I both offered to buy the machine for him but he said he would get insurance to do it.

This is where bargaining comes into my grieving process. If only. That is what the bargaining stage is. If only we had got him the machine. If only we had just put him in the car and taken him to the Medicare office to take care of the paperwork. If only, If only. But to live in the bargaining phase is to enter a nightmare because you just tear yourself up with it and it just adds guilt on top of the loss. But really guys, you can’t linger in any part of the grieving process. I’m not going to be able to stay in denial, that isn’t reality. To be angry, which I have been, isn’t healthy either because then the anger just eats you up and hurts people around you. Really the only stage I haven’t really felt so far is the depression, and I’m terrified of it. I have previous experience with anxiety and depression and I know how that darkness can just swallow me whole.

Here is another point to understand about the stages of grief, is that they really don’t go in an order. Yes, denial is always first but you can kind of weave back and forth through all of them. Sometimes within the same day. The stages are just a framework to put a name on things you’re feeling. To mentally and emotionally heal properly you have to address each stage as it comes.

I realize at your ages you may have already lost someone you loved or know someone who has. It makes for an awkward feeling sometimes because you don’t know what to say to the person and that’s okay. The one thing that is always safe is “I’m sorry.” If you love the person, tell them. If you knew the person who died say something you liked about them. Tell a story about the person. If you didn’t know them just listen as the person talks. Things not to say are you know how they feel. Don’t compare your wounds to theirs because chances are, yours are partially healed. Don’t say at least they aren’t suffering anymore unless the person really battled a long illness. It’s okay to not say anything at all too. Maybe a pat on the shoulder or a smile.

I’ll tell you something I have never experienced before when I have lost someone is the complete inability to complete simple daily tasks. My son asked to spend the night with his sister the night before the funeral and I couldn’t calculate time enough to answer him so I got frustrated and started crying. So, I’m going to need patience from you all for a little while until I get myself a little put back together.

These discussions with my classes were obviously peppered with my tears and choked back sobs, but I wasn’t a complete mess, and they were all so respectful and attentive. During one class, a student with Autism, was confused by me getting a little emotional and started saying Hey, Hey, Hey. Another student tried to shush him but I said it was okay. Then I looked at the student who was confused and told him it was okay if I cry sometimes. It’s okay if anyone cries, especially when they have lost a loved one. He was okay after that as I finished whatever part it was I was talking about.

My day was filled with a lot of support from students and faculty. I got a lot of hugs, I love you’s, and I’m sorry’s. I love our school and the tight community it is in. I got a lot of grading done, a lab set up for tomorrow. I functioned with my brother’s name on every breathe. Every action, every task, it gets done but my mind and heart are wanting to hear my brother say my name. Jenny. Hey Buddy, how’s it going?

When I got home, after the youngest daughter’s dance class, Steven was laying in our room watching tv and I climbed up on the bed, buried my face in his neck and bawled. My safe place.

Image from jenningswire.com