I Felt Guilty For Being Happy

It was four days after the tragedy, and I had already convinced myself that I was feeling well enough to go back to school. Who was I kidding? I knew, my parents knew, my classmates knew, and my teachers all knew I wasn’t supposed to be back yet. I was called out of my first period math class and was escorted to the counselor’s office. They handed me a blue pamphlet that read, The five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.”

My brother had died that previous Sunday. He was only seventeen and a senior in high school. I was eleven and in the sixth grade. He died in a car accident only a few hours after we had breakfast with our parents that morning, and my last moments with him weren’t exactly the best. Breakfast was tense—we were still angry at each other from an argument we had the day before over a stupid camera. If only I had known that would be my last interaction with him, I wouldn't have acted like a brat who holds grudges.

I remember looking at that pamphlet in the office. I was trying to figure it out. Were they trying to tell me there is a step-by-step process that is identical for each and every single grieving individual? I mean, I guess it’s true? I’m still stuck on Stage 1, aren’t I? He’s not actually dead now… he’s my brother; he’s smarter than that. They identified the wrong body… give it a few weeks, he will come home.”

Well, obviously, he never came home. After a week, it sort of hit me, but I still didn’t go to Stage 2; I wasn’t angry… how could I be angry in a time of sadness? I suddenly found myself in Stage 3, bargaining, thinking about the “what if's.” What if I had hugged him goodbye, instead of ignoring him and getting into mom’s car after breakfast? Would that have thrown off the minutes and changed his fate?

During a check-up with the school counselor a few weeks later, I mentioned how the pamphlet she gave me on the first day was flat out wrong. I told her how I skipped Stage 1 and went to Stage 3. That’s when she told me that there isn’t an exact process when it comes to grief, and that those are only the five general stages.

There are five distinct stages that one can be in, but there’s no set time interval for each one. I could be past denial one day and be onto acceptance, yet go back to denial again the next day. It sounded crazy to me at first, but it did happen. That’s for sure. For the proceeding year or so, I had been all over the place in terms of stages. I even experienced anger once or twice, a stage that I thought would never come over me.

The toughest stage of all, however, was acceptance. It sounds rather ironic, but when I first had experienced acceptance after two years of his passing, I felt guilty. How could I move on with my life when my brother was dead? Isn’t that disrespectful? Shouldn’t I devote the rest of my life to remembering him? How horrible of me to be happy in such a circumstance, you soulless and selfish girl.

He was my best friend. He was the one who would walk to the candy store with me every weekend to buy jawbreakers, only to crush them on our driveway later to get to the gum in the center. He was the one who got me into lacrosse and who coached me every weekend. He made me run with him for miles on end until we were both out of breath. He was the one who drilled it in my head to never change for anyone, no matter how different I may be from the rest of the crowd. Up until his passing, he had paved a path for me to follow.

Moving on with my life was a difficult process, but with time and finally talking it out with family and friends I managed to understand that there is nothing to feel guilty about. Moving on and being happy is what he would want for me. Moving on is better than being stuck in that numb slump I was in for the first handful of months.

Now, it has been over 8 years since I have last seen his contagious smile. If I had told my eleven-year-old self that the nineteen-year-old me would be okay, she would have thought I was crazy. Eleven-year-old me didn’t see a bright future because she couldn’t picture one without her big brother in it. But eleven-year-old me kept breathing, and she took in everything happening in her life one day at a time. She didn’t know where her path was leading her, but she kept moving.

I moved all the way to where I am today, attending a highly ranked university. I am now surrounded by incredibly talented people I adore as I move even closer to where I plan to be one day. I moved all the way to where I am today with a smile on my face every single step of the way. Most of all, I have moved all the way to a firm stage of acceptance, a guiltless stage of acceptance.

I have accepted that I can be a genuinely happy person, even when my brother does cross my mind; I won’t cry anymore. I just smile big enough for the both of us.

Now, don’t get me wrong here and think I have become this emotionless individual when discussing death, because I’m not. I still get teary-eyed every single time Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here comes on my iTunes shuffle during my nighttime drives. Every day, I still think about how different my life would be if my brother were here. I always catch myself wondering where he’d be, what job he’d have, what city he’d be living in, what he’d be saying to me with regards to my current position in life. Every minute, I am picturing my life in some parallel universe where he’s still living.  

But with all of this said, I no longer let these thoughts hinder me from leaving my bed and living my life. It’s normal to get upset over these things, even if many years have passed. We’re humans; we have emotions, so don’t resist your body’s desire to express them because that’s not healthy.

In all, there is no right or wrong way to grieve when it comes to the death of a loved one. There isn’t a step-by-step tutorial like I had initially thought. Everyone deals with loss differently. As generic as this may sound, time heals all wounds. Don’t rush yourself out of grieving; allow your mind to run its course and process it thoroughly. Above all, know that it will get better. Like I had mentioned before, I truly couldn't see a future for myself when I was eleven. My world was crashing right before my eyes, and I had never felt so helpless before in my life. Nevertheless, I got myself to where I am today. It’s a tough journey, but I have managed to make it to the sunny side, and if you’re grieving right now, I want you to know that you will also make it to the sunny side. I promise.