Doing the Best We Can

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my older brother’s death. He’d been homeless, possibly bipolar, and driven by rage. As another sibling said, “I will probably always be tormented by thoughts of the torture his demons inflicted upon him.”

We are a myth-making species, and the myth another sibling has adopted is that our homeless brother took upon himself the demons that haunted our family so the rest of us could be free. It’s a pretty myth that allows her to make sense of his life, and for all I know, it could be true, but I can’t shrug off his problems that easily.

My brother hated Jeff, partly, I think, because my brother felt abandoned when he discovered he and I weren’t in the same boat — loners with never a chance at a real relationship. He also felt he should be the one to look after me, though he couldn’t even look after himself.

Back when his problems started showing up, no one even considered the possibility of mental illness; they just thought he was a troublemaker. He and my father were so much alike. They both thought they knew the right of things, and they often fought. For most of my life, they used me as the rope in their game of tug-of-war, and I wasn’t smart enough or hard enough to discover a way out. I remember as a young woman thinking I’d never have any peace until they were both dead, and that the depressed me to no end, not only that I would think such a thought, but that it might be true.

For many years with Jeff, I did managed to evade much of their conflicts and the despair those conflicts (and my divided loyalties) engendered in me. After Jeff, died I went to look after my then ninety-three-year-old father, and when my brother showed up shortly afterward, the fighting escalated. And again, I was caught between the two of them. This lasted until my father’s death.

Oddly, although I often think of my brother, I don’t usually think of the horror those demons put us through. I think of the irony that because of his homelessness and his demons, I have a home. It was his death that started a whole cascade of events that led me here, to this house. In a way, I benefitted from his demons, though I don’t feel guilty. It’s just something I ponder.

We can never know the truth of someone else’s life. I learned this after Jeff died. I was wailing to a hospice social worker that he hadn’t had much of a life since he was so often sick, and she told me that he did have a life. It might not have been a happy life, but it was his life. It took years for that particular lesson to soak in because our lives had been so entwined and we thought so much alike that it was often hard to tell who had what thought first, but the truth is, it was his life. I might have been a part of his life, but I wasn’t the whole of it.

It’s the same with my brother. Whatever I think of his life, the choices he made and those that were thrust on him, I try to allow him the dignity of owning his own life.

One other thing I’ve learned from all of this — the conflicts, the deaths, and especially my grief — is that we all do the best we can with what we are given. It’s hard sometimes to separate out the unfairness of life, since some people are given so much — good physical health, good mental health, wealth, joy, companionship — while others get by on a paucity of such gifts.

And even when we, in hindsight, think that others could have, should have done better with their meager gifts, if we’d been inside their heads, with their demons poking at us, we might realize that yes, they did the best they could.

If there is anything I do feel guilty about, or at least unsettled by, it’s that I was right all those decades ago. It’s only now that both my father and my brother are gone that I’ve truly found peace. It’s a horrible thought, made even worse by the truth of it. The one mitigating factor is that if my belief is true — that we all do the best we can — then not only did they do the best they could, but so did I. It’s not as if I wished them dead. I didn’t. I simply wished for peace, not just for me, but for them, too.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator