What losing my brother taught me about grief: Take the advice that works, leave the rest

Advice on how to cope with grief is rampant during the holiday season. Do what’s best for you.

Published on: December 14, 2022 6:00 AM EST

Illustration of sad woman separated from others by dark fog
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I’ve mourned relatives, students, people from my past. As piercing as some of these deaths have been, it wasn’t until Aug. 21, 2021, that I became someone whose grief is permanent.

That day, in the early, still-dark hours, I woke up and saw my mom had called at an even earlier, darker, hour. When I called her back, she delivered the worst news of my life.

My 35-year-old brother Tyler had died in a car accident the night before.

I hate telling people this. I hate that it’s true. I hate that getting a compassionate, or even reasonable, response to this devastating, life-altering fact isn’t guaranteed. (The other day, when it came up during a doctor’s appointment, the ear, nose and throat specialist’s eyes widened and he sounded almost excited. “Oh, WOW. That must’ve been unexpected!”)

I hate so much about losing Tyler. But even more, I hurt. I hurt, I hurt, I hurt.

I am among the grievers now, those of us who know the impossibility at times of simply living, let alone celebrating. Those of us whose experience of joy just is never the same.

We live alongside loss; our existence is forever shaped by it. But the pain can be particularly present during the holiday season — and as a result, it’s a time of shared grief for many who have suffered loss.

Advice on how to cope — solicited and otherwise — is rampant. When I google “grief holiday season,” lists of tips appear: two are nine items long; another is 64; a third, 28.

This is only my second time living through the holidays without my brother; in many ways, I’m still an amateur at grief. Ordinarily, when I’m new at something, I seek guidance: I look to people who have achieved success, or trustworthy folks with suggestions about how to improve.

Yet as universal as grief can be, it’s an incredibly individual experience. I’ve realized that following other people’s “how to” strategies hasn’t been useful to me. The most helpful lesson I’ve learned about grief is the one I taught myself: I only need to do what works best for me.

With the exception of my therapist, I’ve learned to tune out many of the well-intentioned suggestions I receive — not because I don’t appreciate them, but because a lot of advice simply doesn’t fit.

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My 38th birthday, just over two months after Tyler died, was the first celebration on my family’s calendar; they were upbeat when we gathered for dinner, no one commenting on Tyler’s absence. Surely they just wanted me to enjoy my day.

I, on the other hand, cried into my hands as we ate. “I don’t want to pretend it’s normal he’s not here.”

Later, I mentioned this to a friend, my most valuable resource since the minutes immediately following that phone call; before we met, her brother died in a car accident. As I spoke, I expected her to nod knowingly, offer up a similar story. Instead, she shrugged.

“I mean, are you supposed to talk about it every time you’re all together?”

That’s when I knew: like so much in life, grief calls us to take what works and leave the rest. Because this is the worst, most profound pain I’ve ever felt, and in those early days, I was desperate for guidance. I truly didn’t — and sometimes still don’t — know how I’m supposed to be okay.

So I asked for help. Sometimes, someone else’s wisdom is exactly what I need to hear. Other times, I’ve adapted advice to make it relevant to me. And then there are the times — even with people who know me and this particular pain, best — when it just doesn’t apply. For example, “Tyler wouldn’t want you to be sad” is a sentiment I disregard every time I hear it.

This can be discouraging when trying to navigate the upheaval of grief, which is one of life’s most disorienting experiences. And in my experience, there’s a special sort of hell for those of us whose loss comes without warning.

I’m thankful I gained this insight so early on. It relieves the pressure of trying to follow someone else’s precise path. For the last year, I’ve listened to advice about managing grief, and then listened even more closely to myself: Does this seem like it could work? Is it something I want to try out?

Fellow grievers may read this and disregard every word. That’s okay — in fact, it’s the point. No one should follow advice that doesn’t honor who they are and what they need, especially when it comes to something as massive and transformative as grief.

During the holiday season — and every other possible season — we deserve to take the best care of ourselves as we can.