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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

Finding Balance in Life: The Art of Holding Two Things at Once

Updated: Jan 2

I guess one of the most painful things about dealing with the death of my brother to suicide was this notion of what to do with the swirl of thoughts that engulfed my mind and the agonizing daggers that continually stabbed at my heart after his death.

My brother was ten years older than me. When I was in second grade, he was graduating high school. Developmentally we were always at very different milestones in our lives, at least until we both were adults but even then, I always had the feeling that I was the “little brother”.

After his death, I spent a long time wondering “How could he do this to us?” How could he take his own life and leave behind his children and grand children and this wake of devastation and pain? How could he do this to us?

I remember when my brother got a new used car one time, he wanted to take me for a ride. I am guessing it was about 1973. The Steve Miller Band song, “The Joker” was climbing the charts and I remember riding around our small town with the windows down, listening to that song over and over on my brother’s 8 track tape player. The lights from stereo would dance as the song informed us that some people called him the “space cowboy” and that he was “lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time”.

It’s hard to know if my brother had started using alcohol and drugs by then. I would guess he had started using something. It seems so innocent in some ways and I would guess that no one who starts using thinks to themselves, “with this drink, I’m going to start my 30 year battle with drugs and alcohol — leading to suicide.” People just don’t start out thinking like that. If they did, I would guess we’d have fewer people addicted and my brother might still be here.

Like it or not, his drinking and drug use were a part of my brother’s identity.

But my brother also had other parts to his identity.

He was a dedicated father. He may not have always made the best decisions when it came to parenting but I am convinced now, more than ever, that he wanted to do the right thing by his boys. He cared about them and like most fathers, I know he worried about them.

He was a good worker; a hard worker, often working extra shifts to cover when people needed time off. At his funeral, one of his coworkers, with tears streaming down his face, came up and threw his arms around me and hugged me for a long time.

Also at his funeral, I spoke with the woman from whom my brother rented the upper flat of the duplex they shared. She was an elderly woman in her 70’s and told me that if it had not been for my brother’s kindnesses of mowing the grass and shoveling the snow in the winter, she would not have been able to stay in her home for as many years as she did. She said that my brother was always willing to help her with projects that needed to be done around the house. I wonder if my brother ever knew the impact he had on this woman’s life? She said, with my brother’s help, she had been able to keep her independence for another 12 years. What a gift!

So here is my dilemma. If you look at the brother who was addicted and ended his life in a horrific and tragic way and you look at the brother who gave an elderly woman independence for 12 additional years to keep her out of a nursing home… which of these people is my brother?

In our society, we like to polarize things. You’re either a democrat or a republican. Liberal or conservative. For gay marriage or against gay marriage. We either love ourselves or we hate ourselves. And in many ways, it becomes easier for us to think if things fall on one side of the spectrum or the other. It’s that pesky gray area that causes confusion and difficulty for us. This is how it was for along time with my brother’s death.

What I’ve had to learn and embrace over the past ten years is that he was both of these people and a million more. My brother was a multifaceted and complicated person. He had sides of himself that he showed us and sides to himself that he kept to himself. It was easy at the beginning to associate my brother’s identity with “how” he died but I have come to realize that is a small part of who he was.

And I’m left holding these two sides to my brother and believing them both to be true. It’s complicated and confusing. There were some people who demonized my brother after his death. Saying he was “selfish” for taking is life and leaving us with the wake of pain and struggle. I have never felt my brother was selfish.

I’m sad because it seems that there would be so many more options in this world when you are in pain and suffering than killing yourself. If he had reached out to someone, if he had sought therapy, if he had been able to beat his addiction… so many “if’s”.

But when I am really sad, I think of that Steve Miller band song and I can imagine sitting next to my brother in 1973. That old car, me barely able to see over the dashboard and the hint of cigarette smoke wafting out of the cars plush interior. We are waiting, together, in anticipation for the 8-track tape player to interrupt the song with giant KER-THUNK. And believe in mind that I can hear my brother singing…

Cause I’m a picker

I’m a grinner

I’m a lover

And I’m a sinner

I play my music in the sun

I’m a joker

I’m a smoker

I’m a midnight toker

I sure don’t want to hurt no one

And in my heart, I believe that is all true.

by Lee Erickson, MA, LPCC

Grief Therapist

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