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S*an D. Henry-Smith, selection from the series, Isle, 2022.

What is grief like? We asked Staci Bu Shea to edit a series of writings from individuals who have faced the loss of someone deeply important to them. Read Staci’s introduction to the series here.

Published every Thursday through the early weeks of summer, each writer offers a glimpse into how they shape and are shaped by grief, and every text is published with a photograph by the artist and poet S*an D. Henry-Smith. Here, Yessica van den Berg gets in touch with her brother by writing a letter to him.

S*an D. Henry-Smith, selection from the series, Isle, 2022; a vast landscape of both sharp and rounded rocks, covered in grass and moss. The dense, layered and multi-formed rocky surfaces in the foreground are parted by a small waterway. The landscape continues far into the distance. A mountain ridge rests on the horizon line and under an overcast sky.

Dear brother,

What if I told you that since you left, I want to know so much more to understand this. What is the science of grief? What does the silence of mourning say? How do I deal with the thought that you were not yet ready, still had so much to do, to reconcile?

I’m looking for an analysis. An explanation to break the ice, to understand the coldness and distance that death brings to my life. It’s the first time death has been this close, but I find resemblance in the chilling silence one experiences in the midst of an unruly hurricane, where it doesn’t rain and is cloudless. My sadness is like the stillness in the center of the storm, abandoned, while everything is moving fast around me. I feel how the colors leave my world. What does it take to draw them back to that empty space in my heart?

I have heard once that the loneliness you feel when you are among people is the worst kind. Eats you up deep inside. When you’re not alone, yet you feel so clearly that’s when you’re most alone. Something like that.

Time stood still, but the world and its people did not. Every minute, every day, it moved further away from me. A distance that cannot be described in miles. A distance that can only be described in a feeling. Deprivation from even those closest to me. Because they’re standing close to you. Fear of talking about it, for hitting that tender spot where that harrowing hole has dug itself.

*

2020: I am pregnant with my first child. Apart from being totally unexpected, it’s absolutely predestined, blessed and more than welcome. Joy.

I am generally going through a healthy, beautiful, and happy pregnancy. I don’t speak to you very often. The times we do speak, we mostly have discussions about stupid little things. Maybe it’s my hormones or our temperament, likely both. But you are happy for me. The baby is due on the 10th of July, one day after your birthday.

News like this always confronts me with the reality that you live so far away. I feel sad that I can’t share this with you or be there for you up close. But your presence is always there. I hope my thoughts reach you too, that you feel my love for you.

Since I grew up as a child in Holland and you lived your life in New York, we were always physically distant but never absent. Out of sight, yet held in my heart. We come from the same place.

I have been in love with your nephew since the day I saw his tiny heart, not yet six weeks old, flashing on the ultrasound. This love makes one acutely realize how fragile life is. How brave and loving we must be because it also means inevitably bearing an unbearable pain. Around me, I have heard just a little too often that with news so beautiful and blissful comes great loss. An anxious feeling creeps up on me. What if this also awaits me? The feeling remains.

June 30, 2021: The due date is around the corner. I just finished a fun project the day before with the children I work with and feel incredible love for. A day and place where I have been surrounded and filled with such positive feelings – this is an important detail – , not yet aware of the overwhelming contrast that life is going to show me not 24 hours later.

Our sister’s birthday was yesterday and we’re celebrating her. Our last conversation was a difficult one. We have been trying to reach each other for a few days now, but just miss each other. A few times I don’t answer with the thought that I will “call you later.” A procrastination that has marked me forever. That I should have called you right back keeps running through my head. I still had so much to tell you.

Then we hear through mami that you were taken to the hospital by a friend. You had sudden symptoms of paralysis in your arms and legs. You had been preoccupied with your health the days before. Cold? Virus? Later we learn the symptoms turn out to be that of Guillain Barren’s syndrome, which in most cases, is curable. My highly pregnant brain prevents me from understanding the severity of this. Mom is going home, she is worried sick. We have a lot of contact with the friend who is with you. Tests are done, and you even send another video recording to mami. You and I don’t get the chance to speak again.

July 1, 2021: The hours go by at lightning speed. In the morning I have another conversation with mom and your friend. There is an explanation of treatment and the next steps. We think about how to organize this. Someone from the family must assist you. The expenses have to be paid. There is a lot to do. I take another nap in the afternoon. When I wake up, I am startled by a number of missed calls from Richard, the friend who is in the hospital with you.

I actually know right away.

Because I don’t answer, he sends it in a whatsapp message. What I don’t quite understand to this day is that he would choose to let me know in a whatsapp message. “Your brother is dead, he passed away.”

A few days later, on July 4, my son is born. He is given several names. Including yours, Ruben. One of the ways you’re held in our hearts, your memory carried into the present.

*

When I speak to you, can you hear me? When I bring you close, can you see me? Can you see how your life has imprinted into us?

The other day, mami dreamed about you again. You were smooth as ever, dressed to perfection: neat shoes, steamed clothes, clean. Man. You held her tightly. I’m jealous. I’d do just about anything to see you again in a dream.

Even as I look for a sign, evidence of your presence is in the reality that you are never forgotten. That piece in my heart is empty, but truly never empty. My love for you always lives there.

What if you knew. Maybe you do now.

Yours always,

Tu hermanita

Yessica

Yessica van den Berg

is an educator and Black mental health advocate

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