Sweet Potato Casserole, 2016


Sweet Potato Casserole

Name: Kathryn Thies

Age: 28

Tell me about the person who died: 

Bryan was my older brother, my hero, and one of my best friends. When he was 25 and I was 22, I moved across the country to start grad school. A week later he got a huge promotion. He spent three weeks at the office, non-stop, learning his new role. With the promotion came a bigger salary. He booked airfare to come visit me and was even bringing our little sister with him. Two days before the trip, his first day off in three weeks, he went out to celebrate the promotion with his friends. After a day spent out in the sun at the lake, they went to a bar. At 2:30 in the morning, Bryan convinced his friends he was sober and able to drive home. The day had been long, it was the middle of a torrential rain storm, and Bryan picked up speed because the traffic lights were all turned to flashing yellow. About a mile and a half from home, his SUV hit a pothole and he hydroplaned into a tree. Later we found out that his blood alcohol content was .24, three times the legal limit. The police told us that he had probably not had time to even realize he was going to be in an accident and that he died the second the collision happened. They said that like it was a good thing. I always wondered if I would rather Bryan have had a chance to fight for survival.

Bryan had always loved to party but if I had even a sip of alcohol when I was with him, I wasn't allowed to drive. He wouldn't start the car until everyone had seat belts on. He was my protector, but somehow he forgot to protect himself that night.

What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?

I had never lost anyone close to me before. My grandfathers both died before I was three, and my grandmothers are still alive, so this was my first experience with grief. The hardest thing I ever had to do was to say goodbye to my brother and bury him. The second hardest thing I ever had to do was get on a plane and go back to grad school where I had only just started to get settled in and build relationships.

The first few months were simply about surviving the day. Some days it took everything I had just to get out of bed and show up to campus. I dropped one of my classes, and the rest of my professors gave me a lot of leeway with due dates. Everyone would tell me that they would love to help, just ask. The hard part was, I didn't know what to ask for. I will forever be grateful to the people who told me that they were going to feed me and did, the people who would sit with me while I tried to get homework done so I didn't feel so alone, the people who planned activities to help me find moments of happiness. I had a hard time explaining to people how lonely the world was. Yes, I had a ton of friends and family and lots of support, but I couldn't call Bryan. Dating was hard because people always ask about your family on the first date. Some people I would tell, others I didn’t. I still don't know how to answer the question "How many siblings do you have?"

I had a nightmare about three weeks after Bryan died. In the dream, the rest of my family was in a car accident and died. That brought on insomnia. It's been six years and I still can’t sleep at night without medicine to help. I lost about 20 pounds that first semester and didn't gain it back until recently.

Slowly but surely, I learned to function again. I didn't cry as often. I could think of Bryan with happiness. I hate when someone else is given a reason to grieve, but I do love being the person they turn to. I get to mentor them through their grief. It's one bright spot in the darkness that is Bryan's death.

I have a wonderful man in my life who knows about Bryan, but it's hard to know that Bryan will never get to meet him.

Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?

In our family, Bryan and I were two of five cousins all in the same age range. Every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the cousins would all fight over the leftover sweet potato casserole. It is our favorite to this day. Since I was the only one living away from home for college, I always ended up with the biggest serving. My mother would say "I'll make more. Y'all live here so you can have some later in the month." I don't think any was ever made later in the month, which makes me laugh. Now, when I'm home for the holidays, I like to take the leftover sweet potato casserole out to where Bryan is interred or to the tree. I sit and eat and talk to him about how the family is, the things going on in my life, his dogs. I always leave a spoonful for him.

If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like at different points in your journey?  

At the start, it was a war-torn country. Nothing made sense, and it was a fight to survive. After a year, I was in a valley. I was low, but I could see that there was life. Now, most days are sunny, but occasionally I'm hit with waves of grief. The waves ebb and flow. Some are so strong they pull me under and I just have to hide out in the grief for a little while. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in the grief. Most days, though, I float along the surface. The grief is always there. Without it I wouldn't be who I am, floating along.

Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief? 

Depression is a part of grief. I knew that going in. I didn't realize just how exhausted the grief would make me. You have to talk yourself up to do things as simple as walking from the car to the door. That steals energy. The crying saps your energy. The insomnia wears you down. It was a miracle if I could stay awake for more than seven hours those first few months.

The anger part of my grief also surprised me. The stupidest things would make me mad. I had no tolerance for anything. My cohort would complain about homework and I would want to scream at them. I had that homework too, but I also had a dead brother.

How did your people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?

I hate hearing platitudes (If God brings you to it, he'll bring you through it; you have to choose to be happy; God must have needed Bryan more, etc.) I hate hearing about silver linings. A silver lining implies that I should be ok with his death because it brought about a specific result. While I can see some positive changes in my life, they will never make it ok that he died.

I hated when people would tell me that they knew how hard it must be. They didn't. They didn't have the relationship I had with Bryan so they couldn't understand what losing him meant to me.

I always tell people who say "I don't know what to say" that there's two good responses. Say "I'm sorry" or "That sucks." It's simple and it's honest. It really does suck, but it’s important to acknowledge that it happened.

How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?

I will forever be grateful to my parents for recognizing that the grief my sister and I were experiencing was important too. So many people just worry about the parents of a dead person, but we loved him every bit as much! We made every decision about his funeral and afterward as a family. 

I had to set boundaries with my parents for a while. I think they were so worried about losing another child that they were scared of everything I did. We made a rule that if I went out drinking, I would have a glass of water for every alcoholic drink I had. That helped them ease up a little. 

How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?

I was an open book. There was only really one thing that I didn't share with a lot of people. In fact, only my counselor and my mother knew this part in the beginning: I often wished it had been me instead of him. I saw his strengths and my faults and weaknesses. In my lowest moments I thought the world would be a better place with him instead of me in it. I was never suicidal, I just wished I could trade places.

Years later, I realized I had worked hard to build up the skills that he had that I wanted. I'm grateful for the example he set and I try to live up to being Bryan's little sister.

Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?

I was born and raised a Christian. My faith was dealt a huge blow when Bryan died. I didn't want to believe in a God who would take my brother. He was a really good person who made a bad mistake. That didn't justify God taking him from us. My grandmother told me at one point "I've been yelling at God today because I'm so angry at him for taking Bry." That was a huge turning point for me; it had never occurred to me that I was allowed to be angry with God or yell at Him. I now believe that God felt my pain at losing Bryan, that He wanted to hear about my anger and sadness, and that He grieves with me.

Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief? 

Every year for Bryan's birthday, I take the money I would have spent on a birthday present for him and use it to do some good in the world. I always try to make that good a nod toward him and his passions. One year, I donated a soccer ball (his favorite sport) to a program serving kids in a very poor community. Another year, I took a big basket full of tennis balls to the dog park and gave them out to everyone who came in.

How did your loss and your grief change you?

I became a much more empathetic person. It took me a while to realize that when one of my friends got dumped that was the worst thing in the world to her, because she hadn't experienced losing someone close. 

I'm more of a daredevil than I was before. I want to be able to try everything at least once, so that I can share the experience with Bryan. I carry him with me wherever I go. I'm not as scared because I know that if I die, I'll see him again. I'm not trying to get killed, but I fear death less.

Kathryn Thies is a 20-something living, loving, and laughing her way through life in Chicago. In her free time, she loves trying new recipes and craft brews.

Sweet Potato Casserole is excerpted from the Grief Landscapes project.