Finding Grace: Reflections on Death and Grief

by Megan Furnari, SOM ’12

Honorable Mention 2009 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award

The moment that my brother died, I felt it. I felt it in my entire body. I saw his spirit fly. I remember the silence that filled the room. In stillness, we waited. For the rise and fall of his chest. For another smile. For his eyes to open, we waited.

Snapshots of memory play in my mind. Seeing Eric lying on the bed, no longer breathing, lying next to him for hours, silently trying to convince myself that he would never leave. As long as I held him close to me, he could not go. I held his hand tightly in mine. Determined. His fingers would not get cold as his spirit slowly left them behind. Silently, I asked for one more minute, one more second of time. For this young person, my younger brother.

Memories. Some long, others short. The snapshots often have no order. They dance in my head as still images or short clips of scenes. Some parts have been lost, but the most important still linger.

The grief began the moment I arrived at the hospital with my parents. The moment I left Eric in the emergency room, I felt my legs moving from a slow walk into a run. Alone, I rushed outside and let the intensity inside boil over and out of my mouth. Sobs. Realizing that my brother was not the medical exception to the rule. That I would not be a doctor during the most critical part of his disease. That I would have to trust the judgment of others to guide my family. To trust the doctor who had just walked briskly by me in the hall as I sobbed openly, unable to control myself. It was hard to spend time with feelings of hope. Hope was confusing for me to understand. Confused by my own need for him to live and with his need to perhaps let go. Was his autistic mind ready to leave this world and go into the next? And so I tried to separate myself from what he might be feeling. To see him and remember how he had taught me to love and feel without language. To trust that he knew what was best.

After a dose of morphine, he closed his eyes. We were quiet and waited. Nervous to speak and afraid that this may be it. Then he opened his eyes again. He smiled and looked at everyone in the room carefully with a focus that I had not seen in his eyes before. Suddenly, the whole room began to move. He smiled and his eyes were bright. Everything was perfect for thirty minutes. Then he closed his eyes.

His eyes would not open again.

I held his hand, along with others in my family, until he passed away. It was his left hand. All the love in my entire body directed towards that one hand. The hand that I had held for twenty years. Refusing to let his spirit go. I loved him with all of my soul as he lay there. And he was peaceful. He did not suffer at the end. His last breath came out, a gentle exhale. And his spirit left him.

Next to him on the bed, I held him in my arms and love just flooded out of my eyes, down my cheeks, and onto his face, out of my body into my embrace. For what seemed like an eternity, I lay on that bed. My parents standing beside me. I spent many hours with grief. And will continue to feel moments of quickened breath and tightening chest. Passing a photo in my parent’s house. Seeing a face in the metro that looks familiar, his eyes or his smile. A word in a conversation that reminds me. A movie about death and suffering.

Grief is not something to be pushed away and forgotten because it will linger backstage in your mind. Waiting and then taking the spotlight when you least expect it. At last, I told my grief to take the stage and dance. To move without inhibitions and to feel loss. So grief danced and danced. I cried and slept, sometimes all day and all night. I would lie in my bed and look up at the ceiling, no motivation to rise and begin the day. And then one day, grief started to leave.

Eyes finally open again. Seeing the world and feeling the memories of a little brother and the wisdom that he left behind for me to slowly unravel. To see the natural order of things turned upside down from the moment he was diagnosed with a chronic disease as a young child. For my parents immediately and for me later as I realized the severity of his condition, yet still did not see him as dying early or different from my friend’s siblings. It was not until he passed away that these questions came to the surface. I am the survivor. I am the child that did not have the deletion in the gene that is crucial for muscle function. Determined to succeed, to prove my commitment to my own life. To become a physician and embrace what I have learned from the loss of a brother.

Everyone has a different experience, for we all see the world differently. Just remember that at the end of someone’s life, celebrate. Find whatever makes them smile and fill their world with love. Think about the beautiful times and memories. Take what you have learned from them and use that knowledge to guide your own life. Find your own grace.