Journeying On – After the Loss of My Brother

January 28, 2020 by


My brother died of a drug overdose and I found the most unlikely place to learn how to grieve.

I arrived in Durham, NC shortly after we buried him, and I was surrounded by empty space. Not the kind of space you seek after a crazy day, to gather scattered pieces. It was nothingness, an emptiness. I couldn’t feel, couldn’t care.

When the news of his death came, it wasn’t a complete surprise. I was strong in the days leading up to his funeral. There were unexpected joys and rekindled acquaintances from years past. Meeting my family and his friends again brought him close. We shared memories, songs, and tears. Holding his ashes was my last physical connection to him. My last face-to-face one was also that: he lit my cigarette from his, ten years earlier, on a cold December night. The brief glow lit up his face and already then, I was filled with sorrow for him. We placed him into the earth, under the Dakota sky where we’d been raised, and my sister dropped four white roses on the urn.

There’s a certain stigma attached to the drug users’ world, and I clung to a tiny shred of hope that maybe he’d died from some other cause. Something that would preserve his dignity. Something that would preclude society’s judgement. I clung in vain. When I saw the ugly words following CAUSE OF DEATH, it confirmed what I had foolishly tried to deny – not that any other cause would bring him back or heal the fact that I didn’t get to say goodbye.

So now, here I am on the doorstep of a community for broken people. Broken, not because they are incomplete, but because we are all labeled as being with or without disabilities. I couldn’t have found a more healing place.

I started volunteering at Reality Ministries in Durham every day, and continued for months. A community-based nonprofit providing opportunities for people of all abilities, it’s an expression of the beauty that is experienced when sharing in the lives of those who are typically marginalized. It’s a place where all can thrive in a celebration of deep friendships, of being valued, and accepted as beautiful.

I was quiet my first months, letting it all flow around me. Just being. I learned that nothing previous mattered. Only moments. Moments of conversation, listening, and silence. Slowly, as I was drawn into their lives, the world became beautiful again. I felt the sun’s warmth on my face and delighted in the wren’s early morning song. I was learning to feel again, to care.

For years I had worried that drugs would kill my brother. There was a special place I would go, where I felt my communication to the sky was wide open. I would bring my fear there. When I go there now, where I had begged for his healing countless times, my connection is gone. Strangely, it’s OK. I’m not angry, just questioning. I have so many questions, but I’m beginning to see new connections.

At Reality, I’ve heard prayers that I know rose straight up to the sky, as swift and sure as arrows, unhindered by any disability. Wide open lives without pretense, where there is no reason to be anything but who you really are. Hearts on sleeves, burning brilliantly and unashamed, telling the world, “This is me, and I will help you be a better you.” Reflections of the heart of God in those who work to serve the people society prefers to keep in the shadows.

I’ve heard prayers that I know rose straight up to the sky, as swift and sure as arrows.

Where am I now? Tony, my wise friend, tells me that life is a journey. So I will journey on, joining the thousands of families affected by substance abuse. Even if some days hold no hope and the journey feels like a dead end, I have been changed. Maybe it’s because I’ve lost my brother in such a tragic and meaningless way. Or maybe it’s because Reality Ministries was at my crossroads at a moment when I didn’t know where to turn. I believe it’s both.

I have been assured that God is present in every human heart, no matter their choices, and that is my comfort. That, and Buddy’s promise. Solid, strong, and quiet, Buddy takes my hands, his dark eyes look into mine, and he says, “I will pray for you.” Those have got to be the deepest and most powerful words I’ve heard, and I believe them. I’ve been blessed.

Anita Decker lives at Durham House, an urban Bruderhof House in Durham, North Carolina.



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