For me, it was my brother. He was only 47 when he died of alcoholism. He was magnificent, funny, kind, witty, and handsome before the drinking started. When we were kids, he was one of the first to collect movie soundtracks. He especially loved the instrumental versions, he always said, so he could hear the strings. “We Have All the Time in the World” was his favorite title song from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As annoying as I found his constant overly loud music, it was clear he was in his personal heaven.
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Not long after my brother died, I found myself on a train with a new friend. Even though I hardly knew him at the time, I chose to tell him about my brother, something I’d been keeping quiet, privately consumed by a deep and numbing sadness. He looked at me intensely, and then actually said he was envious, because, "For the next few months, your heart will be wide open, and you'll feel and experience things like nothing else."
And he was right. Here’s how grieving changes you.
You feel everything more.
With his words echoing in my head, I found myself embracing the sights, sounds, and smells of life like I never had before. Each corner I turned held a new experience that I relished. When spring arrived and I came upon the sight of the first magnolia blossom, I swore it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And if an early frost ended any blossom’s life prematurely, I was devastated for each and every blossom. Other people’s brothers seemed to be everywhere; observing them felt painful and strangely joyful.
Your priorities shift.
If you’ve had your own Big Loss, you’ll know about the inevitable perspective shift that occurs. All the little annoyances of everyday life—all those little things that would have derailed an ordinary day, like a snippy email from a coworker or getting cut off in traffic—none of it seems to matter after your loss. If people were late, or unkind or selfish, none of it mattered compared to my brother dying. My busy, rushed life slowed down at having discovered the uselessness of being in a hurry all the time. Why not stay with a friend a little bit longer or linger on the phone with my mom a little while more? The equilibrium of your life recalibrates.
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You love a little deeper.
After my first Big Loss, whenever someone I loved would say goodbye, I would watch that person leave the room, get in their car or walk down the street, and I’d be fearful that I’d never see them again. But instead of letting that fear send me into sadness, I used it to focus my love on each person a little more, because suddenly at the age of 40, I realized how sacred life was.
You learn how to be still.
My favorite thing to do is this: Just stop and be still, wherever I am, and breathe in the love. Breathe in the love of whomever it is that you’ve lost. Stop, be still, and take it in.
You can help others with their Big Loss.
Whenever friends ask my advice for how to get through their own grieving process, I encourage them not to run away from the hurt, but rather, seek out the experiences that made their loved one special. If the person you lost liked to go for quiet walks, go for a quiet walk. If he loved to cook, make his favorite meal. Like my new friend on the train was for me, you can be that synchronistic friend or random person who encourages another on their journey of grief.
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You’ll move on.
Eventually the passage of Big Loss occurs, which is different for every single person. For me it was a full calendar year where I’d faced each season without him—holidays, birthdays, summer days, and sleepless nights. Once that personal passage transpires, we start to get acquainted with what we’ve learned, what’s left, and what’s in front of us. That’s when we return to our ordinary life. The life where your colleagues do annoy you, traffic does make you mad. But here's the thing: You’re a bit stronger, a bit more in tune with others, perhaps more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, maybe even a touch wiser. That’s when you can quietly pat yourself on the back for getting through one of the most difficult trials of life. Good times and hard times will come and go, but the memory of the people we’ve loved lives on forever.
Sometimes I go back and listen to my brother’s favorite music. The sounds I didn’t appreciate as a kid have become symphonies. Yes, listening to his music can make me teary sometimes, but most of the time it’s blissful. And in those moments, his favorite James Bond song becomes true: We do have all the time in the world.
Johanna Baldwin is a writer and producer whose debut novel All (Wo)men Desire To Know focuses on love and loss.