On April 25th, my family, friends, and I came together to celebrate what was supposed to be my brother’s twentieth birthday. Our close family friends had just gotten home from Mexico a few hours before we all decided to meet in Black Rock, to gather in remembrance and celebration. The mom, who has been one of my mother’s best friends, basically sister for years now, told us that at eight o’clock that morning there was a rainbow in the sky. There was a rainbow over a random Mexican airport on the day of my brother’s third birthday in heaven and somehow our friends were there to see it. If you weren’t sure what type of signs I’m speaking of, that is it. I’m referring to the signs that we see in journeys following the loss of a loved one.
My brother passed away when I was fourteen. He fought a long, mostly victorius battle with AGTPBP1. This is a neuromuscular degenerative disorder which causes all the nerves and muscles in one’s body to break down. He was diagnosed in 2016, after several misdiagnoses. For a while, doctors would tell us he had cerebral palsy. We believed them until his body started to break down. And so we went to the National Institute of Health, all four of us undergoing genetic testing procedures, and the doctors found the gene that would eventually kill my brother. The gene all four of us carry, only three missing the impact in a physical sense. However, it destroyed our lives in every other way. The fear that I could pass the same gene down to my children one day absorbs me. The same fate of my brother entraps me. His death invigorates me. I’m hoping when the time comes for me to pass on the same gene, that biotechnology is far more improved than our current systems and we have designer babies and I could have more control of my life. A girl can only dream for serenity.
I’m seventeen now, a junior in high school but probably more mature than several adults. Losing both of my grandparents and my brother within three years gives me the right to say that sort of thing. I have gone through more trauma than some of my friends will ever experience in their whole lifetime. I have accepted the most painful thing before even getting to high school. Many people call me resilient. When Tyler died, I tried to just keep moving on with my life. I went back to volleyball practice just a week after, I started dating a boy the week of his death, I invited my friends over to swim in my pool. Even today I try not to give into the agony. I joined a youth group, which I don’t like to admit that I quit but if crashing your car on the way home from a meeting isn’t justification for that, then I’m not sure what is. I stay involved with three varsity sports, skiing and both volleyball teams. I am part of the auditioned singing group at my high school. I work over twenty hours a week. I try my very hardest at school. I’m successful. I guess I am resilient too. I only doubt it when I’ve allowed myself to be weak. When I cry. When I scream at my parents. When I’m not trying hard enough. When I’m not fighting as hard as my brother did to live another day.
The difference is that he couldn’t fight any longer, and now I have to fight harder. I hate him for that sometimes. I hate that he gave up and now I can’t. Tyler passed away at 6:40 PM on July 16, 2019. I hate that day even more. I hate that the sixteenth of every month is a day of mourning. Even if I have something to celebrate, there are no exceptions to it. I also hate that I’m now a pessimist, but I feel bad seeing the good in the world when he can’t.
The next full day after Tyler’s death, a vibrant rainbow appeared in the sky after a long night of raining skies. There was a cloud above the colors that resembled the shape of an angel. I am a strong believer that clouds just form a shape that we want to see, and honestly we make of them whatever we want. But it felt different this time, because I no longer cared for the shape of clouds. I no longer cared if I was gonna make it to the end of the rainbow. I no longer cared about anything because there was no point in it. How could I ever find joy in a life without Tyler? I’m still trying to figure that out.
Right away, all of our friends and family said, “That’s Tyler”, and from that moment on, every rainbow is him. Every rainbow is a sign that he is still with us, just in another form, and another place in time. After that day I started to keep a list in my phone of all the signs I saw, and even the signs that my friends saw for their own loved ones. There is one that I see every single day. I wish I could say that I was joking. I look at the clock every evening at 4:25 PM. That number is my brother’s birthday. It really freaked me out when he first died, but I know now that it’s just him checking in with me everyday.
A typical sign that people associate with death is the red cardinal. A common folklore saying has reached many grievers, “When a cardinal appears in your yard, it’s a visitor from heaven”. Cardinals have largely symbolized a departed loved one, which originates in spiritual beliefs. The birds are seen as visitors from heaven, messages from God, and God himself. There is no single origin to this belief, however it is most commonly found in Egyptian, Celtic, Hindu, Irish, and Native American cultures. Many grievers have taken this sign under their wing, pun intended, and used it as a way to cope. It is so easy to get caught up in everything that is happening around me after a significant death that you eventually feel like you need to slow down. You are overworking yourself to a point of no return. The world is moving so fast around you that you just need a moment for everything to stop. Those signs? The cardinals and the rainbows, they are a reminder to keep going. As cliché as it sounds, the signs are a reminder that everything is okay.
I was talking to one of my good friends that I work with about writing this essay and if she had lost anyone. She proceeded to tell me that her grandmother had passed away last year. Then I asked her if she sees any signs that remind her of her grandmother. My friend began explaining how she sees dragonflies and cardinals, which her family always believes is their loved one. She told me that she was birthday shopping and found a dragonfly ring, and she told me on her way home from visiting her grandmother’s grave, a cardinal flew by her car window. I was so grateful that she shared it with me, so I wrote it down on my phone. I wondered if her beliefs came from a religious understanding or if it was just a coping mechanism. I often think the same thing about myself.
I grew up going to a Catholic school, as it was the better alternative to the standard Bridgeport schooling. I enjoyed learning theology and prayed every single day. I confessed my sins and received my communion and went to church on Sundays. My faith was important to me because it was the only thing I had known. It was also the only thing that I could blame the imperfections of my life on. At some points I hated God for how other people treated Tyler. And I would swear at God amidst my praying because I was so angry that I wasn’t given the same life as my friends and that I wasn’t the most attention needing child. It is ironic that I used to think this because now I am sort of an only child and it sucks. Being the center of attention sucks.
My family and I moved to Easton the summer before my final year of elementary school and Tyler’s final year of middle school. There were a couple reasons we decided to move out of Bridgeport, the most prominent being Tyler’s special education needs. It also was nothing but beneficial for me, being able to go to a school where the gifted were common and opportunities for bright futures were accessible. The only thing that was missing was religion. I was now going to a public school where theology wasn’t a requirement and not everyone believed we were the descendents of Adam and Eve. It was confusing to say the least.
Church on Sundays no longer happened, and when Tyler died, my family began to give up on the belief that God is always good. I often think I buried my faith with him. I do find myself wishing sometimes to explore Christianity again. To find understanding in something other than medical files and genetics. A lot of the time, people say “everything happens for a reason”. I want to know why people believe that.
I want to discuss that mantra. The infamous “everything happens for a reason”. It is one of the most commonly lived by and one of the most brutal lies. I used to love the lie but now it just seems absurd. How could there possibly be any reasoning for my brother dying? And how could someone be so inconsiderate to say that to me? Kalyn Fogarty is a blogger that lost her son to a miscarricage. She now has two children, and people use those two children as a justification for saying “everything happens for a reason”. She describes hearing this as, “an expression said with the best of intentions but wrought with the most complicated of emotions” (Fogarty), and I couldn’t agree more. The people who say this to grievers, say it with an intent of sympathizing. They say it because it’s easier than trying to understand what this death really means. What the attempted sympathizers don’t realize is how belittling it is. By saying this to a griever is saying that their person was supposed to die. There is a reason you’re broke from funeral expenses and there is a reason you no longer believe in God. There is a reason you get overwhelmed at random hours and there is a reason to want to die. Fogarty writes, “Admitting it all happens for a reason seems like a cop-out and I refuse to not fully acknowledge my son’s ephemeral spark in my life… I remind myself that something terrible happened but something beautiful formed from the wreckage. I allow myself to feel joy and happiness, despite the loss” (Fogarty). As a griever, I allow myself to see the beauty in our difficult situation, I do not find reasoning for it. That beauty I choose to find? Each and every rainbow in the sky.
I see rainbows now far more often than before his death, whether that is because I look for them harder or they’re appearing commonly because I need my brother even more now that I can’t have him. Our friends send us pictures of a rainbow everytime they see one, they know it is Tyler too. It keeps us connected and gives others a reason to reach out more often, as it seemingly is harder when you don’t know what to say to a grieving person. I also write about these rainbows and signs and grief more often than I even realize, and I could imagine it starts to get repetitive. But everyone heals in their own ways and this is mine. On the days it hurts the most, I eagerly write to inform others on how I feel. I know it helps those on similar journeys feel less lonely in their heartache and more comfortable in their new skin. I’ve started to get into an episode where I feel that nothing is my own anymore, and everything I had in me left with him. But these essays and papers I write are mine and it’s the one thing no one can take away from me. Unless you’re a plagiarizer. That would just hurt my feelings, but I guess some people could need it more than me. Sometimes a win in any form is enough to make you feel empowered in pain.
When you’re living with grief, it comes in waves of joy and sorrow and disbelief, and each day is different. On the days when you are at peace, and life gets too good, it scares you. But these signs are a reminder that pain can be beautiful. Grieving does not always have to be dark. Seeing signs of your loved one is welcoming beauty in the pursuit of healing. It is allowing yourself to believe you are still with one another, just seeing each other in a different form. In a different state of living, as if your paths were not always meant to be intertwined yet they are still aligning when you need it.
I envy those that do not have to grieve, yet I pity those that don’t see the real beauty in every rainbow or cardinal or dragonfly that they see. I pity those that don’t understand true pain but then try to sympathize with broken people. I envy those that still have their siblings, but I pity those that would trade their lives for another if it meant no more pain. I’ve known great joy and I’ve known great sorrow. I’ve known how much it hurts to hit rock bottom, but I’ve known how much power it takes to climb back up. Death has made me strong, death has made me observant, death has made me capable of a bright future.
I pity myself, but I pity the joyful far more.
Fogarty, Kalyn. “Don’t Tell Me ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’.” Scary Mommy, Scary Mommy, 5 July 2021, www.scarymommy.com/dont-tell-me-everything-happens-for-a-reason.
Mayntz, Melissa, and Melissa Mayntz#molongui-disabled-link. “Cardinals: Legends, Lore, and Spiritual Symbolism.” Farmers’ Almanac, 27 Apr. 2022, www.farmersalmanac.com/cardinals-legends-lore-and-spiritual-symbolism.