The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
My big brother died three months ago. He was 19 and overdosed on heroin. He’d struggled with addiction for years, tearing our family apart in the process. Every time I close my eyes, I see him in the casket. The thing is, I hated him more deeply than I’ve ever hated anyone. He terrorized my mother and me, stole my money and medication, and made my home feel unsafe. I often wished for his death, which makes me feel like the worst human being on earth.
I can’t remember a time when I had a relationship with him that wasn’t built on lies. And yet I’m still in pain. I feel guilty about my grief, like I shouldn’t be allowed to mourn because I was cruel to him and hated him when he was alive. I don’t know what I miss about him or understand where my sadness is coming from. I know there’s no “quick fix” for grief, but what am I supposed to do? I feel lost and have no idea how to help myself.
Steve Almond: The most dangerous delusion we carry around when it comes to death is the notion that we should never speak ill of the dead. We erase their defects and destructive conduct. We gussy up their legacy and imagine them ascending to heaven. In essence we, the living, deal with our guilt by conferring sainthood upon the dead.
The problem with this arrangement is that it’s dishonest. It keeps us from doing the most essential work of mourning — forgiving the dead who abandon us, and forgiving ourselves for remaining alive — by pretending there’s nothing to forgive. What I admire about your letter, Confusedly, is that you’re not falling into that trap. You’re seeing your brother for who he was: a person who surrendered the best parts of himself to addiction, who pushed away and hurt those closest to him.
Because his death is so fresh in your mind, your guilt and anger are, at the moment, shielding you from a more painful truth: that your brother was in tremendous pain for much of his short life, which he tried to drown in drugs. The task that lies ahead for you is to find mercy for that broken soul. Here’s how the writer James Baldwin puts it: “People cling to their hates so stubbornly because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Cheryl Strayed: You have every right to mourn your brother, regardless of the feelings you had about him and his bad behavior. In losing him you lost an essential person in your life — your big brother, whom I imagine you once loved. The fact that his addiction made him into a person you came to hate so deeply in the final years of his life doesn’t ease or obliterate your sorrow; it complicates and magnifies it. The most important thing I want to say to you is to be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to have the feelings you have without questioning why you’re having them.
Even people who don’t have complicated feelings about the person they’re grieving often experience a wide range of emotions, from sorrow to rage. Your feelings about your brother will change over time, as you grow and gain perspective on his life and your own, but right now this loss is fresh: Your brother died only a few months ago, after years of familial turmoil brought on by his addiction. It’s no wonder you feel lost right now. It’s not a sign that you’re doing the wrong thing or feeling the wrong way. It’s a healthy response to a tremendously painful experience.
SA: This is going to sound sort of odd, but maybe all the guilt and self-loathing and confusion you’re feeling is a way of keeping your brother close. This is how he must have felt in those last few years, after all, as he was careening through his addiction. And this is how it works with those whom we love most deeply: They find a way not just of showing us how they feel, but of making us feel as they do. Death doesn’t bring an end to that dynamic. It is merely amplified within the echo chamber of irretrievable loss. So for right now, you’re sitting shiva. Like all mourners, you are searching for a way to keep your brother alive, even if that means absorbing his riotous anguish.
CS: You don’t say whether or not you’re seeing a therapist or participating in a bereavement group, but if not I strongly suggest you do both. A therapist can guide you in making sense of all you’ve been through and will also help you see it’s likely not your brother you hate, but rather the disease of addiction that consumed him. A peer group will offer you vital understanding and support as you navigate your complex feelings about his death. If you can find a group specifically for people who lost a loved one to addiction, all the better. When we feel lost — as you say you do right now — that sense of loss is often rooted in the notion that we’re alone. You aren’t. There are many people suffering in the way you are suffering, Confusedly. It will be enlightening, and also probably healing, for you to find some of them.
SA: Here’s the thing that may be hardest to face: You were stronger than your older brother. You wanted to save him, but he wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he kept you and the rest of the family at bay. His failure wasn’t one of will, or even compassion. It was a failure of mercy. He couldn’t forgive himself, so he destroyed himself instead. It may not feel like it at the moment, but you’ve taken a braver path, which is why you’re feeling every bit of this loss. It tells me that you’ll find a way to forgive your brother — and yourself. In this mercy, salvation begins.