I believed I had the perfect life. I was about to graduate high school, well on my way to college, had great friends and a loving family. There was nothing missing. But, I spoke too soon.
It was around 9:25 a.m. that I heard news that would change my life forever. My brother Zach had been in a car wreck. He had fallen asleep at the wheel. Just like most 20-year-olds, he preferred not missing a minute of life, even if that meant sacrificing sleep. He was in a coma with serious brain injury and many broken bones when I got to the hospital. The doctors continuously had no answers for us. I had never seen a hospital as a bad place before Zach’s car wreck. It was a place where babies where born and lives where saved… or so I thought. My brother fought for five days before he passed away.
I couldn’t believe it. He had been preparing to move to Florida and attend motorcycle mechanic school. I thought to myself, How could God hurt him? He was my best friend, my protector and my partner in crime. I no longer had someone to sneak mayonnaise on mom’s sandwich (she hates mayo) and watch while she ate it, no one to chase the kids off who were about to egg my house, no one to constantly pester. That day, I became an only child. I was alone.
Shortly after Zach’s death is still a blur to me, I was just going through the motions, nothing had meaning. I found comfort in food. I ate, then I slept, then I ate again.
I couldn’t cry, I could barely feel anything, I was numb.
The numbness continued. I stopped building relationships in fear they would end just as abruptly as Zach’s life. I graduated high school and moved 45 minutes away to Oklahoma State University, where I remained distant from everyone who knew him, concentrating on school work, sleeping, and clinging to people that didn’t know much about my brother. The result was that I pushed my closest friends away.
I became nervous about any potentially dangerous situations—driving late at night, drinking and driving, to name a few—but I couldn’t express this fear of life because I wanted to be strong for my parents. I saw my parents’ pain as worse than mine because they lost a son. I wanted them to have time to grieve without worrying about me.
I also experienced a lot of anger—anger at God, anger at family members, angry that it had happened to me. But I have always been a passive person, so I never released this anger. I never saw a therapist; everyone feels differently and I didn’t feel like being told what to do during my grief. Instead, I began running, and that proved to be therapeutic for me.
Now, it has been nearly four years since Zach’s death. I don’t fear life anymore, I embrace it. I learned the hard way that life is short, a way that I hope no one else has to find out. I can’t say when I finally turned my life around, but I realized Zach lived life to the fullest, and because he no longer can, I have to for him.
I rebuilt my friendships and began socializing more. But this adjustment was hard, too. I was told by a close friend—who I thought would understand, considering he had lost a brother—that I talked about Zach too much and needed to get over it. He said I would never be happy with my brother’s death weighing me down. I was caught off guard by his criticism, but knew I couldn’t handle Zach’s death this way. I have learned to take things with a grain of salt, I am going to react how I want to react. I am going to talk about him when I want to.
I still share Zach’s story. Although, my current boyfriend never met him, he knows about Zach, he knows what Zach looks like, he knows who Zach was. And he has been inspired by Zach’s memory, so I will continue sharing it. Some days may be harder than others, but I will never let Zach be forgotten. To this day, I still don’t know how to answer the question, “Do you have siblings?” But it feels great to know I had my brother for 20 years and to be confident that he lived a life of love and happiness.
To any girls who have lost someone important, don’t let anyone tell you how to react. I have had people tell me not to cry, to get over it or to try to not think about him. But I remember one of the first things my mom said to me at the hospital was, “We will all grieve the way we grieve, no judgments.” And I still believe in that to this day. Sharing memories about Zach soothes me, but others are comforted by not thinking about their lost loved one. Neither is right or wrong.
One lesson I learned from losing my brother was to never be scared to say, “I love you.” I loved my brother, but we were not ones to verbally express it. The last time I remember telling my brother I loved him was when he was dying. Don’t make this mistake.
I leave you with this final note: live and love passionately because you never know who will be taken away from you.
In love memory of Zachary James Tays
June 14, 1988 - November 26, 2008