The day my younger brother Eric died, I didn’t even know it. He died of a methamphetamine overdose in a Vancouver housing unit where he had been living for six months.
I only found out 10 days later when another sibling told me he had received a voicemail from a detective. Right away, I was worried. My older brother returned the call. An hour passed. I knew my sibling was talking to the police. Then, he called me.
I lost it. I gave the phone to my partner so he could take down notes.
I had spent much of my life wondering when this call would come. In fact, years ago I wrote about how it feels to carry that dread with you every day: “A perpetual suicide watch. It’s like walking around with a knife in your heart. You laugh, you live, but it’s always there.” But, as I learned that night, nothing truly prepares you.
My first emotion was guilt. At the outset of 2020, I promised myself that I would visit my brother. I wrote to tell him so, though I’m not sure if he ever received the letter. Then the pandemic hit. As a personal support worker, I couldn’t travel to see him without putting the people I support at risk of infection.
I couldn’t even fly to British Columbia to identify the body. Guilt, layers of guilt.
Grief at a distance
My brother Eric couldn’t seem to catch a break his entire life. Everything seemed stacked against him from the beginning, his being a victim of childhood sexual abuse just part of it.
In Grade 8, he painted an image of a human drowning. To this day I think about the comment his teacher left: that the colour of the water wasn’t believable. What she had missed is, what is a young kid doing painting someone drowning? In 1982, when Eric was 15 and I was 20, he attempted to die by suicide. He took an overdose of drugs.
He was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Over the next three decades, he would live on and off the streets. He went to prison a few times. He relocated to Vancouver, where he continued to experience homelessness.
He did find his way at times. By all accounts, he was in fact off drugs for a period of time before he died, but fell off the wagon one last time.
Over time, my family fell out of touch with Eric. We didn’t talk much, especially in the 15 years prior to my brother’s death. I would send him packages, mostly.
He would write letters. I have hundreds of them saved. Over more than two decades, these letters formed a diary of sorts. They were an account of the horrible, horrible pain he endured his whole life. At the same time, they showed how sweet and endearing he could be. His creativity. You could see his love, his forgiveness for humanity.
Our last real conversation was three and a half years before his passing.
He asked me how, with our shared history of abuse, did I survive without taking drugs. I said to him I’ve never taken drugs because I learned to navigate the pain. He told me he takes drugs to numb the pain.
I told him how much we loved him, and he said that he knew. We cried.
Grief at a distance
Eric’s body lay in a morgue for a month after his death. I spent weeks trading photos with detectives over email, trying to positively identify him from 4,000 kilometres away with a collection of outdated photos. When Eric was cremated, he was placed in an urn and sent to me in London, Ontario, the day before his tribute
Pandemic restrictions limited our celebration of Eric’s life to only 10 people. I invited our older brother, two sisters, but not any extended family. I also invited a handful of people who had a connection with Eric. One was a reporter who had written about Eric’s story. Another was a woman who had sent him coats and socks. It made for a very tight group of special people who had made life a little bit easier for him. I also posted the tribute on YouTube for anyone not in attendance.
It helped, but it didn’t give me closure. For the first month, I couldn’t sleep. I would replay what I imagined his overdose was like, over and over. The paramedics arriving, trying to revive him three times. Every single detail.
I talked a lot about the guilt and grief I felt during the tribute, but joining an online bereavement group did the most to help me work through it. I wanted to talk to people who were experiencing pain in real time, like I was.
In that online space, I was able to feel human and normal for experiencing my feelings without judgment. It also helped me, as much as is possible, get out of my head. I looked outside the box that was my life and realized that, amid the pandemic, millions of other people must be experiencing the same feelings of loss and the helplessness of distance.
The pandemic is marked by distance and disconnection. We wear masks. Unless you have a family member who’s sick, or experience the loss of a loved one, COVID-19 may not even feel all that real.
Our thoughts are even further removed from the vulnerable and marginalized, or those who may struggle with substance use. We’re so far removed from the realities faced by Canadians in the shelter system. We see the demonization of the “faceless homeless person” asking for money and of people living in precarious situations like encampments.
I urge Canadians to remember that people like my brother have a story. They have a life. They have dreams.
This post is republished on Medium.
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Photo credit: Donald D’Haene (Author)