How I Grieved My Brother’s Death Through Art
Dear Wonderful, Creative You:
Over the weekend, I was listening to an On Being episode with artist Dario Robleto. His work centers on using unexpected materials to remember: the earliest recorded pulse waves cast in gold, his parents’ record collections ground to dust and cast into delicately balanced pelvises, and “pain bullets” cast from audiotapes of poets, ash, mourning dresses, and various materials. His work sits at the intersection of art, science, and nature – a place where most of my curiosity settles too. Hearing about his work filled me with a desire to share something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I want to tell you how I grieved my brother’s death through art.
I’ve been wanting to share this story with you, and how I used my art to create beauty, ritual, and healing, but when my brother first died, the wounds were fresh, and it seemed too soon, and too much. Now with time, the pandemic, and the incredible hurts Black, Brown and non-gender conforming folk are suffering, I knew I needed to share this story and the tools I used to grieve through art. I hope it offers you comfort, or some ideas about how to process your own grief, at a time when we are all experiencing it.
I don’t normally share this much about my personal life, but it feels important to give to others right now, and so I’m taking the risk. I’d ask that you please not offer advice or judgment.
My brother’s addictions started early, and ended his life early, at just 42.
I got the call when I was at the top of a mountain in Maine. He had an untreatable infection in his foot, it needed to be amputated, and he was probably dying. I’d been half waiting for this call. Every time an unrecognized number in his area rang, my heart stopped a moment. Frequently I’d get calls from a hospital – that he was having fluid drained again, that he needed to stop drinking or he would die because his body was shutting down. I tried to help. Once he even let me help him get back into rehab, but Peter was trying to drown out a pain much greater than himself, and he didn’t want an audience. In the last year or so he barely ever answered my calls and texts, never mind the door.
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I was lucky that we were able to get to the hospital for the last few days of Peter’s life – it felt good to be able to to advocate for him and take care of him. I wanted him to know that he was loved and was wasn’t alone. He had whittled down all his savings and had no insurance anymore. He was at a hospital for the uninsured, and they saw him like a lost cause – they treated him okay, but they didn’t see who he was. I showed the doctor a picture of him a few years previous at my wedding, when he was still in recovery, sober, and happy. I talked to her about what he was before he was lying in that hospital bed with a deteriorating foot and missing teeth. She teared up. She talked to Peter differently after that.
As he was dying, when the palliative nurse gave the morphine dose that made him finally relax a bit, he began sipping from an imaginary glass – smiling, and giggling. It turned my stomach. I hated his addictions and what they did to him, and it spoke so clearly of how obliterating the pain was the only thing that brought him relief. But I was relieved he was finally comfortable.
Peter died having pushed away most of the people in his life. He was a good person, but I think he felt ashamed of his addictions, and didn’t want people to see him that way. His funeral had a few family members, his girlfriend, and mostly, my husband’s family, there to support me.
For me, losing Peter was sadness about the loss of my brother, but also so much grief about the life he never realized. He died at age 42 of cirrhosis of the liver. He never married. Never had kids. Never fulfilled so many of his dreams and desires. I wanted a way to grieve these losses, but also to give Peter some of what he never had.
During the time between my brother’s death and the memorial service, I punched out vellum butterflies. Over a hundred. And I folded each wing with a straight edge and carefully pierced each butterfly and strung it on a nylon cord. The repetitive work gave me a way to channel my sadness, my frustration, my questions, and the heaviness. I wanted to create an installation above the table where his ashes would sit – a swarm of butterflies to rise from the ashes and carry him off into the sky.
I loved the delicate, yet strong nature of vellum – there was a vulnerability, like there was to Peter, that seemed right. But at the same time, the butterfly was a symbol of freedom – something I think he never had, but always wished for.
At the service, I suspended butterflies at the entrance, flitting here and there, leading to the swarm of butterflies at the front of the room, ready to carry him off to the heavens.
I gave the remembrance at the service. I felt blessed to be able to create a full circle ritual with my art and my words. To write something real, something poetic to honor him and his life, felt important. To have others hear it, listening with attention and care for Peter, felt healing. Writing this now feels like an extension of that.
I wanted to keep what I’d written for my brother, so I made a book where I recorded my eulogy. I’m so happy I have it; these years later, it still feels right. The art is not perfect, or precise. It’s real. It’s heart felt, and making the book and the butterflies gave me a way to channel and understand my feelings and my hopes. It gave me a way to create a ritual about his death – to honor him, and to give him space for living on – much like Dario Robleto does in his work.
My in laws were very thoughtful and gave me a butterfly bush not long after Peter died. I planted it in our front garden along with some of his ashes. I talk to him sometimes when the butterflies gather around the bush, collecting their nectar and pollen. It makes me happy to be able to offer him a chance to be here with us.
This is the book in full, including a beautiful Mary Oliver poem that encapsulates my hope for him.
I hope that perhaps I’ve offered some ideas about grieving through art. Art can help us honor, create ritual, and keep the people we love present, even after they are gone. Art also has space for all the complicated, messy ways that we love each other, and there’s beauty in that. I wish you much love and comfort right now. You deserve it.
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