Originally published March 2012.
I was22 when my brother died. I was at a party when I got a phone call from my grandmother. She told me that my brother Peter’s car had crashed, killing him instantly.
All I could do was sit there blankly. The world seemed vacant, strange, and dream-like. People were shocked; some didn’t know what to say while others came to say how sorry they were.
As I left the party that morning to meet my mum who was on her way back from identifying Peter’s body, all I remember was that the sun shone brightly without a cloud in the sky. Delicate pink flower petals bloomed on every tree, carpeting the ground in swirls. It seemed so wrong. Dark clouds and rain would have been far more appropriate.
In retrospect, I was not emotionally equipped to handle this type of trauma, which even for a strong young woman would have been difficult. My vulnerability had its roots deep in my childhood. As a little girl I had loved running with the feel of the wind around my face and my hair flying behind me. I felt free. Yet when a thoughtless kid made a comment judging my appearance, I stopped running. What the kid said ate into my already low self-confidence created by growing up in an abusive household. I felt ashamed to be me.
Other kids started teasing me until I dreaded going to school and all I could do was pretend that every horrible word said wasn’t affecting me. I became very self-conscious and found it very difficult to speak to people. The comments and taunts followed me wherever I went. New schools offered new chances but I’d hear the same comments and experience the same feelings of isolation and exclusion.
High school was difficul. Like everyone else, I just wanted to be liked and to fit in. I found refuge in my room where I would spend hours reading book after book, dreaming of foreign countries and hoping that someday, someone would find me beautiful. I also found solace in nature. Alone, with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair I could run freely, without judgment. I could open myself up and just be.
I had become so used to the taunts that I just accepted them. What was even worse was I believed them. Yet despite all this, there was a part of me that would get up every morning and look in the mirror desperately trying to find something pretty in my face. Some days I’d find it, but others days I’d feel hopeless.
After my brother’s funeral, I spent some time back at the family home where I was drawn to the beauty and splendor of the surrounding nature. I spent hours staring at the sky and the trees, and going for walks in the nearby wood. I began to realize that I´d been wasting my life. I’d been scared to live it properly and was hiding from both my problems and the opportunity to really live. I understood I wanted to help others and to do something worthwhile with my life. This was my wake up-call to life. It was my challenge to live. And only then did my emotions flow.
Not only was I grieving my brother but as I went back into my past to find memories of him, all the pain and suffering I’d blocked out as a child tumbled forth. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t think about anything else. My behavior was becoming more and more erratic, my thoughts were more and more disordered. I know people thought I was crazy.
Heck, I thought I was crazy.
One night, seven months after my brother’s death, I was again back at home and was desperately trying to explain how I felt to my mum. I could feel the anger and frustration rising amidst the confusion. I couldn’t find the words to describe how I felt. Grabbing scissors I started hacking off my long hair in an attempt to show how I was feeling. I didn’t stop until I had cut it all off.
This was my darkest hour but also my turning point. It made me realize that I couldn’t continue like this. Not only was I destroying myself and my family but I was dishonoring my brother. The next day I put myself in a psychiatric hospital. If I really was crazy, then that was the best place for me. I was only there for three days. The doctors didn’t think I was crazy and this helped me believe that I didn’t need hospitalization. It was such a relief and it filled me with a sense of hope.
I went headfirst into my grief and came out the other side stronger than ever. I’d been worried that I was losing my hold on reality but instead I was creating greater awareness of myself and the meaning of life.
By turning and facing everything I was afraid of – as I embraced it and loved it – it transformed into the source of my strength, power and inspiration. As I continued to release everything I’d been holding onto I began to feel lighter and more inspired. I spent more time in nature and from there I decided to set up a charity for young adults affected by bereavement so that I could help others who had been in a similar situation. I called it Pedro Project after my brother.
Throughout the six years the charity ran it provided a website with online support and one-to-one support in Edinburgh as well as drop-in sessions. At its strongest, the website was receiving 2,500 hits per month. I was a finalist in the Everywoman 2004 Awards that recognized inspiring woman in business and among the top ten finalists in Cosmopolitan magazine’s Fun, Fearless Females Awards 2006.
Every step of success made me happy that I could do something worthwhile and that I could make a difference. Of course I could still hear the negative voice in my head that would tell me that I was a fraud and it would only be a matter of time until other people saw this too. Yet with every piece of positive feedback I could feel the negative voice becoming a little bit weaker. Here I was being me, and people were supporting this. It was such a different experience from childhood.
Yet something was still missing from my life. True peace eluded me and I wasn’t satisfied. I thought back to those times in childhood when I’d dreamed of foreign countries and different languages. A few years ago I had an opportunity to travel to Spain. All I had to do was pay the flight and talk to Spanish people for five days to help improve their English. My brother’s nickname had been Pedro. I took this as a sign that my brother was encouraging me to do this.
Those ten days in Spain changed my life. I loved meeting people and connecting with them in a positive way. We’d go for walks in the country, practicing English, and as their own confidence in English grew so did my confidence in myself. The natural environment of the North of Spain, known as “Green Spain,” was breathtaking. I was surrounded by vibrant green everywhere I looked and the hot sun heated me right down to my bones. I felt alive in a way I’d never felt alive before. I had fallen in love with the country, the language, and the people and I knew I wanted to return and live there.
Initially I enjoyed teaching English to Spanish people. I enjoyed learning Spanish. It was a time of great personal growth and I discovered more and more about me that I never truly knew. Every step of the way I felt my brother with me. Yet after a time I grew restless. I knew I needed to return to what I felt was my true passion and purpose¾helping people affected by loss move beyond their grief to a place of peace, passion and purpose.
Now I’m a Certified Professional Coach specializing in grief and growth. Using the telephone for sessions with clients, I help people all over the world grieve less and live more. It’s a real privilege to help others let go of the pain of loss and move beyond grief.
The death of my brother was the most profound experience and loss in my life. It made me realize that life is short, and it challenged me to transform my own life into something that I was proud of. Despite all the pain and anguish, all the tears and hurt, my brother dying is one of the best things that happened to me. Peter inspired me to learn to live life fully both as tribute to him and to gain meaning from tragedy.
Tabitha Jayne is a leading expert in grief and growth coaching and the author of Thriving Loss: Move beyond grief to a place of peace, passion and purpose. Find out more at: www.thrivingloss.com