Processing Loss

On July 16, 2019, Tyler Cummings, died in the Center for Comfort Care & Healing from a rare degenerative disease at age 17. To help cope with her older brother’s loss, Casey Cummings, began writing about Tyler, her hero and best friend. Here, Casey shares four vignettes and explains how journaling helped her begin to work through her grief.

The Day Things Changed

It was 4:52 AM when I woke up that day. My eyes were red, and swollen like bug bites are after hours of scratching. My head stayed on the pillow as I forgot what I dreamt about.

It was cold that morning, grey clouds crept over the sun and the grass was wet from the rain the sky cried that night. The Earth must have been sad too, or the clouds just got too heavy.

People began to show up to my house, bringing food and food and more food like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. An aroma of coffee swirled through the house and filled my nose, I loved the smell but gag at the thought. My wooden breakfast table had boxes of bagels, rows of Splenda packets, a rainbow of fruit, but not enough to fulfill me. The food covered the love marks on the table, scratches and marker stains from years of care.

I was slumped on the couch, watching movies with my younger cousins, and playing cards. Queen of hearts, Jack of spades, King, Ace. Distractions.

I sat there all day until it was time to get up and leave the house and face the people who brought the food, face the sad Earth, and face what’s been taken. A little sunshine played peek-a-boo with the clouds all day, until it was time for the sun to say goodbye and the sky cried again. It wasn’t gentle this time, but hard, jerking sobs and crashes of thunder. It shook me.

Little flames danced on white candles and swayed to the melodies of gentle songs. It was sweet, smiles ran across faces every now and again. It even ran past mine.

After the flames quit their dance and cars drove through the dark streets, the headlights like lanterns guiding ways when it was hard to see. I stepped into a quiet house, shocked by the emptiness, but not afraid. It was a familiar place, but uncharted territory. Just a little different. Some things have changed.

The Laughter From 9 South

It was a regular Saturday in Boston. People shivered on the streets as the wind howled, like animals calling to a friend. Others walked right into you, and not a single word leaves their lips. Not even a sorry or excuse me. Just roll your eyes and move on. Officers on the corners of avenues directing traffic, even though some may ignore when the flashing signs tell you stay. That was Boston in a nutshell.

Everything was pretty routine now. Walk into the hospital. Look at the pretty lights on the Christmas tree in the lobby that sparkled like stars in the sky. Take a right and inhale the savory and sweet smells coming from Au Bon Pain that just made your stomach growl. Hold up your badge to the tired security officer with the bags under his eyes from the night shift. Give him a smile, he may need it like I did. Take a sharp left, a ninety degree angle and press the button on the magical elevator that could take you anywhere if you wish hard enough. Take me to Neverland, like Peter took Wendy. It took me to 9 South, which was just as special. Take a left through the heavy doors of the fortress, protecting the people of the castle. Finally a right past the nurse’s station and into the room you’ve lived in for the past few months, and the months to come. It’s familiar. Sit in your corner when the doctors come in, do not sit on the bed, and laugh. Our room was never quiet. The television was always on, the vibrant colors reflecting off your face and the walls, and the volume bouncing from side to side of the small room. A slinky of sounds. The machines whirred and beeped like power tools, but softer and muffled by the laughter that was constant and distracting. And it wasn’t giggles that the girls make when a boy walks by, but genuine belly laughs like Santa. The kind of laughter that makes you grateful for where you are.

I made stupid faces and pretending to be a ninja to make him laugh, punching and kicking the air and sticking out my tongue. I spun in circles and sang a song, tripping over my own feet. He laughed so hard and nothing made me happier. I fell to the floor, clutching my stomach, laughter uncontrollable. He couldn’t stop, snapping his fingers like he always did and the aye aye aye’s as if he was a pirate. It was normal to us, we cherished it. He laughed and laughed and laughed. But the moment passed and he was still laughing. Then it got scary and I was asked to leave. Rivers flowed from my eyes as I sat in the little chair outside the fortress doors, ashamed of the mess I caused. We tried to control our laughter after that.

Singing To An Angel

The chaos subsided. Four soldiers fighting their last battle together. We put down our swords and surrendered. We fought long and hard.

The world was happy outside. Sunshine poured through the windows like that glass of orange juice that always tasted just right. The sky hadn’t cried in a long time and the wind didn’t howl. I grabbed your hand and squeezed it. Cold fingertips embraced, I whispered, you are going to be alright.

I kissed your forehead and laid my head next to yours. A melody escaped my lips and traveled to your ears. I sang the songs we would sing together in the car, after a long day on the beach. I sang the songs I would tell you to turn off because it made me so mad. I sang the songs that made you happy. A shield from the next battle the three of us are going to face.

I sang until the castle crumbled. An angel flew towards the sky, the songs stuck in my head. We walked out of the fortress doors, and drove the longest drive home. Windy roads made me feel sick, up and down on a roller coaster, the loops and all. I stared out the window. I looked at the stars that shone brighter than ever that night. I wished upon the first star I saw. I wished for better days. I wished to fight this battle harder. I wished for the angel I sang to.

Your 17th Birthday

April 25th, 2001. My second favorite day, after my birthday obviously. After six long months, you were home sitting on the old sectional couch, all worn out and loved to death. I snuck through the garage after getting off the bus and wrapped you in the biggest hug I could. You kicked and pulled away and I just didn’t let go. I’m glad I didn’t. I knew you hated hugs so I didn’t let go, your pale arms grabbing my hair and pushing my squished up face. It was hilarious to me. I held on tighter.

I grabbed the blue bag off the counter, stuffed to the max with white tissue paper, protecting the present like a shield. I sat on the floor and looked up at your ear to ear smile, so bittersweet to be in this moment. You ripped the tissue paper out, strength coming with excitement, and pulled out the enormous stuffed animal I got you. We couldn’t decide if it was a fox or a raccoon, but we  decided on Pikachu because Pokémon was your favorite. The first thing I saw once you took it out was it flying at me like a bullet with a gentle impact. I chucked it right back. In secret, I got it for you to protect your head from hitting the wall, and that’s why it was so carefully placed on top of the couch. It became a weapon of battle between you and I, now unable to count how many times it was thrown at me. You loved it, and I’m glad you did, even if it was used against me. We ate a vanilla cake with sweet, white frosting because you never liked the chocolate and it made me mad you didn’t. But it was your day.

Casey Cummings on her writing:

“I have always been told to write from the heart. Put all of your emotions into your piece. Let writing become an outlet, showcase what you’re feeling. Express the truth behind what sibling grief is really like. Tell your story, maybe it can help someone else heal. Every time I sit down with my journal, or laptop now in the technology revolving world, I think about those things. Putting my soul into the words and my mind into what it is telling. I write not only for myself, but for anyone else that needs it. Sibling grief is not something talked about often and if I can speak for anyone else going through this, the pain is overwhelming. Loneliness and constant heartache stops time for your family, but everyone else keeps going. It’s hard to watch your friends’ older siblings drive them to school while you sit in silence on the yellow bus.  You have to find yourself again in a place that has changed immensely, but still capable of burning love. The love your family has for the life lost. I write to speak my truth on grief and to allow myself to feel everything I need to. I’ve learned that writing is my healing.

Going through the first year after losing my brother was unimaginable, a freshman in high school trying to balance school, athletics, social activities, and all while taking time to grieve. I was overwhelmed, frustrated, and heartbroken. Assignment after assignment, tears over due dates, and then finally, The House on Mango Street. Sandra Cisneros novel of vignettes. We read this book for freshman year English class and were assigned to write four vignettes with a common theme. I decided to write all four about different events with my brother, some of the best moments and some of the hardest. His birthday, and the day he left us. The style of vignettes allowed me to fill my piece with lots of imagery and descriptions that could allow readers to experience all five senses.  For example, “an aroma of coffee swirled through the house and filled my nose” to experience the sense of smell and, “people shivered on the streets as the wind howled” to feel and hear. It brings the words to life and paints the story for people to not only read, but to see. Writing like this allowed me to bring my story to life again, and help me relive the most bittersweet moment I had with my brother and parents. Things will never be the same, and I don’t know how to accept that yet, but every day I work towards making it easier in any way that I can.

My brother and his life has given me so much and I don’t know how I could ever live up to the standards he created. He was the kindest, most happy-go-lucky kid I’ve ever been exposed to, greeting everyone he met with a smile and fist pump. His impact on my school too was so significant that I am reminded of his presence every time I walk down the hallways. Tyler showed me how to put a brave face on even while suffering, and how to give all the goodness in my heart to someone who needs it more than me. He was selfless, compassionate, and everything that makes up a hero. His impact is what allows me to continue writing, and chase my dreams, and do the things that he could not accomplish in his lifetime. Tyler was my hero and my best friend, and will forever be by my side.”

-Casey Cummings, Tyler’s Sister