It’s Valentine’s Day, and our friend Joy Williams posted a line of Rumi’s that stopped me in my tracks. “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” When we experience heartbreak or rejection of any sort, be it romantic or otherwise, it can be all too easy to start viewing ourselves as nothing more than collateral damage of our broken relationships. When love dies or breaks down or goes up in flames, it can be really hard to keep a grip on objectivity about ourselves. It seems like most of us go in one of three directions; some of us keep our chins up and press on, refusing to deal with and heal from our very real grief. Some of us, on the other hand, might start identifying as fundamentally broken or worthless, because we feel unchosen, unseen, or unloved. Some of us do both, our emotional health imploding silently as we walk around with our chins raised as high as possible. “I’m unlovable,” says our subconscious mind, “and I will never let anyone see that I feel that way.” The problem is, that never actually works. People see it, or feel it. We can’t make ourselves islands, no matter what we do.
Most of us aren’t ever shown how to heal well—how to admit our failures in a relationship and grow, but still avoid the pitfalls of shame. Shame says ‘you’re not beautiful’ or 'you’re worthless’ — too much of the time, we begin to agree. Most of us just feel powerless and unlovable…we feel like collateral damage of those who may have hurt us, or of relationships that simply didn’t last. So it’s good to ask ourselves this question honestly—‘collateral damage—is that all I am?’
If we go down deep enough, if we sort through the rubble and refuse from whatever has broken our hearts, I think we will find the answer to be ‘no.’ You are worthy of love. Don’t let shame or heartbreak tell you otherwise.
Today I feel as though I have come full circle on a journey that started this very day 6 years ago. Tuesday, June 16th, 2009 my youngest brother Alex was declared brain dead after a tragic accident. He had been hit by a car while riding his bike. It was the day before his 10th birthday. So it goes.
What does it mean to lose a sibling? Worse, what does it mean to lose a sibling that in many ways was like your own child? From that point on I lost a piece of myself, my heart forever scarred. I lost so much of what it meant to be Kasey Santanen. It is hard to see the filaments and lines that tie you to someone—that bind them to you—until they are cut away forever. To know that a piece of you no longer exists in the world—will never exist in the world again in the form you knew—is the worst sort of grief.
You flail around in the dark. Nothing makes sense anymore. You grasp at whatever coping mechanism you can find—any piece of string to keep you from drowning. For me, it was running.
I tried to move on with my life—I did a study abroad in France. I moved to Saint Louis. I tried continuing my education at a new university. I agreed to move to Ireland when the opportunity came. But you can’t outrun your grief—your demons will always catch you. Few people know of the terrible panic attacks I would suffer on a near daily basis. Driving to school every day became a nightmare. It would start as something small—a sense of unease. And then, as I was going down the interstate, the terror would hit me. At times it was so intense, so crushing I would throw up in my car. Eventually, I started skipping class. I wouldn’t go on campus. As a result, I started failing.
But I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. It would ruin the image people had of me—that I was strong, I was capable. Social anxiety carries a lot of stigma and taboo. This was the Kasey that moved to Finland before she was even 18. This was the Kasey that survived being homeless in a foreign country. I didn’t want anyone to know how broken I truly was, how much I was drowning within myself. Attempts at going to therapy proved futile. I didn’t trust anyone, and none of the therapists I saw did anything to try and garner trust from me. I bottled everything up and tried to keep moving.
My health started to suffer. Those closest to me know that between 2009 and 2013, I became very, very sick. There were days in Ireland I was so weak I couldn’t even make it up the stairs. Simply pulling a sweater over my head became a Herculean effort.
My relationship suffered. I was with a man whom I thought I would be with forever. For the first time in my life, I was with someone that I felt I would grow old and die with. But that’s not how the story ends. Grief like this—untamed, unmitigated—consumes everything. And while I will not blame my brother’s death and my grieving on the demise of that relationship, I must be honest in saying that it played a part. It was acid on the foundation we had built with each other—slowly eroding away any hope of a future as long as it was there.
In 2013 things came to a breaking point. My relationship ended. I returned to Louisiana. Starting your life over again is something akin to coming to a fork in a road. You can continue down the same path you were on, or you can make a conscious decision to go in a different direction—to be born as someone new.
I made the decision take a new path.
A few weeks ago I was on the phone with an old friend, and I confessed to him that I felt the happiest I’ve been in 10 years. Especially in the last few months, I have started to make changes which I had hoped would lead to a happier life. And so far in this journey, it seems to be working. I feel I’m finally being born again as someone new—emerging from my latent cocoon of grief.
Sometimes amputees say they can still feel their limbs, even years after it was cut away. I can still feel my brother. When he appears in my dreams, he is the sun, he is light and life. He is technicolour. Pieces of him live in me somewhere between the synapses in my brain, close and sacred.
Tomorrow Alex would have celebrated his 16th birthday. Who would he have been, my Gemini brother? And in a way, who would I be now if he were still alive? What sort of life would Christopher and I have had these last 6 years if Alex had never passed away?
To lose a sibling is to lose a part of yourself forever. And over the last 6 years, I have had to make a journey to fill that chasm inside of me, the empty rift left in Alex’s wake.
I’ve come to a point where I can say I have finally started healing—as though spring is finally returning to my soul.
And I cannot think of a better way to celebrate my brother, his life, and his memory than by trying to make myself whole again in his absence.
At Alex’s funeral, I read a eulogy for him. I don’t think it is the best piece of writing I have ever made, but it is one of the most honest. And to stand in front of people—to stand over your brother’s small body in a fire engine red casket made so tiny, so small—and read about his life, your memories of him, and the aching pain of your soul at his loss—is still the hardest thing I have ever done.
I read a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Price, in that eulogy: “It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”
This is how you find yourself again. This is how you live after your soul has been torn asunder.
This is how you heal. One small, tiny, infinitesimal piece at a time.
Kasey Santanen has finally come unstuck in time. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.