When my brother suddenly died, I was left with survivor's guilt

There is absolutely no way to prepare for unexpectedly hearing your mum speak to your flatmates in hushed tones in the hallway at 4am, despite her usually living 106 miles away.

Somehow I just knew my life was about to change forever.

She’d come to tell me that my 23-year-old brother, her son, had suddenly passed away after battling an extremely short illness for just a few days.

After she broke the news, I vividly remember packing extremely random things from my uni halls into my suitcase in complete disbelief.

Being in a state of shock can do funny things to your brain. Why I needed to take an umbrella, my fairy lights and a notebook for the journey home is a mystery to me, especially as I would forget so many essentials.

I had spoken to my brother just the day before. It felt unreal.

This was four years ago.

Losing him has undoubtedly shaped me in more ways than I can ever explain. The first few months following his death were a bit of a blur. As a family, you are forced to adapt to the unexplainable and the future becomes a void of uncertainty and absence.

With the help of my friends, family and a university counsellor I completed my final years in higher education, successfully graduated with first class honours and began to pursue my passions of writing and presenting.

But as time went on, and I buried myself in new projects and prospects, I struggled with what I can only describe as survivor’s guilt.

I felt unsettled about being the sibling who was still alive, and although that felt like a silly thought, I couldn’t shake the feeling.

All I wanted was to take back the times when, during petty squabbles over hogging video games and toys, I had wished my brother didn’t exist.

The fact that I couldn’t undo all the stupid things I’d said would make me feel anxious for a long time.

My brother was quiet and reserved, but could get the whole room laughing with his dry sense of humour. He probably considered himself as something of a hip-hop aficionado, who could often pinpoint every sample used on a track in a matter of seconds.

With a four-year age gap between us, I was progressively promoted from being the annoying younger sister to the ‘cool’ sibling (absolutely my words, not his). And when I moved away for university, we spoke pretty much every day in the form of memes, funny videos and song suggestions.

It took some time for me to realise, but these small gestures were his secret way of saying he missed me, as I voyaged into uncharted waters of independence and tried to navigate my way into adulthood.

This gave me a sense of comfort, and something to hold on to. But often my feelings of guilt would cast such a shadow that all I was left with was sadness.

Friends and family also unintentionally made me feel culpable for my achievements when pointing out that I was able to fulfil a dream that was my brother’s first.

He had recently returned to education to get a degree, yet somehow here I was walking across the graduation stage receiving a certificate he would never get.

Years later, I constantly find myself wondering about my brother’s future, asking questions that will never be answered.

Where would he be working? Would he have a cool flat with his own set of decks blaring beats into the unknown hours?

Would he have a girlfriend, or even a wife?

There are a million ‘what ifs’, and at times I’m consumed thinking about all possible pathways with impossible outcomes.

Along with the guilt, there have been waves of unprecedented isolation. There isn’t much in the way of a support system for young adults who have lost siblings, compared to that of grieving parents, young children or widowers.

You notice that people treat you differently because they simply do not know what to say, and that subsequently leads to people treading on eggshells around you.

Going from having a sibling to suddenly being an only child was also a new dynamic I have never had to experience, but it’s brought my family closer together by default. 

It’s been hard to alleviate these feelings, but I’ve found ways to cope.

For instance, since his death, my brother’s friends have become my friends. Although our loss is not comparable, it has been wonderful to hear their funny anecdotes and memories of him.

Hearing how he would describe me to his friends and how they were shocked he would speak of his younger sister so positively and profoundly, or hearing what he was like on a night out – something I was never able to witness – is an experience you can’t put a price on.

Meanwhile, social media accounts have that handy feature of reminding me of anniversaries and memories unexpectedly. It’s an odd feeling being at your work desk and wanting to laugh, scream and cry at the same time.

Dealing with self-imposed guilt is something I may never get over, but I have come to accept that it’s a normal part of my grieving process.

It’s a realistic emotion, and I just have to carry on despite it.

I try to set goals that my past self would most likely consider unattainable, as I now feel a sense of drive to achieve things, not just for myself, but for him too.

It’s cheesy but after seeing just how instantly life can be cut short, it’s vital to enjoy and experience life to the fullest, and cherish the memories whilst creating new ones.

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