Mourning, twitter, grief
Photo illustration by Cathyrn Virginia. 

Mourning My Brother in 181 Tweets

How do you tell the world you are grieving? In my case, it was a year-long Twitter thread about finding the things that made me feel better.
July 15, 2020, 3:09pm

In the days after my brother died, after I had spoken to his friends, emailed the coroner's office, and called the funeral home, I would crawl into bed and put my headphones on. After finding the saddest Spotify playlist I could, I’d sob. Big guttural sobs. Sobs that wracked my body and made it hard to breathe. I’d listen to music until the sobs gave way to a stream of tears and I could drift off into a dreamless, uneasy sleep.

I forget exactly how Gladys Knight crossed my path. Her song, “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” is about surviving loss—whether about a break-up or a death is never made clear. “Got to make the best of a bad situation, ever since that day, I woke up and found that you were gone,” she sings.

I listened to it over and over. I liked that it wasn’t pretty. You can feel the pain that permeates every inch of the song. “Imagination” is both a plea and a promise. She’s grieving, but Gladys is going to keep on keeping on.

That’s what I wanted—to keep on. To survive.

On January 9, 2019 four days after my parents showed up on my porch and told me my little brother—my sparring partner in video games, the companion I played Eye-Spy with on long car trips, the smart and funny man who loved Dungeons and Dragons and drag queens — had taken his own life, I went on Twitter.

“Okay. Trying a thing. A thread of what is making me feel light in a turbulent storm of grief,” I posted.

Gladys was the first light thing.

Twitter has been my social media platform of choice since I became a journalist seven years ago. Which isn’t to say I love it—Instagram is much less stressful, Facebook lets me keep up with relatives, and TikTok has the choreo—but for better or for worse, Twitter is where I not only get my news, but also where I have built my reputation as a writer.

But it’s not a fun place to be. I’ve been piled on, harassed, reply guy’d. And it’s only 1/10th of what has happened to my peers and colleagues, many of them racialized women, threatened constantly for the sin of being reporters or writers. In 2017, one in four Americans were at the receiving end of online harassment; physical appearance, gender and race are among the top reasons why people are targeted by abusive people online.

For this reason, I’d always been cautious about how much of myself I wanted to reveal on Twitter. While I did post the occasional travel picture, mostly I was doing my job or I was one of thousands adding one more joke about the Ikea monkey, or whatever else had the app in thrall that day. I was just another snarky user.

But after Sam died, I needed people to know. I couldn’t log back on and go back to liking jokes and pretend like I was the same person.

For months before he died, Sam had refused to let us into his apartment. He’d demur that he needed to clean, he was going to do it soon, and us, not wanting to pry or push, would honour his right to privacy. When he said it was messy, we assumed it was in the way many 20-something men’s apartments are.

But when we finally did go in, the day he died, to meet the coroner, it became clear why he wouldn’t let us in. His home had deteriorated lockstep with his mental health. Wandering around, my parents and I shared the same thought—if we had seen, if we had known, maybe we could have done something.

My parents would only ever enter my brother’s home once. I volunteered to clean it out—it had to be done, and soon. It was one of the many things I ended up shouldering as we tried to make it through that first week, when my parents were inconsolable.

I told friends I needed help to do this, expecting that perhaps a few would come. But, unbeknownst to me, the Bat Signal went out. People from all walks of my life descended on Sam’s home, boxing and bagging and sorting all his worldly goods. One friend brought me a bottle of Scotch. I took swigs out of it as I wandered ghost-like through the space, issuing vague instructions on what to do with certain items. Yes, we’ll donate those clothes to charity. You can leave the lamp on the curb. Can you put a drill through his hard drive? If I couldn’t stop the world from seeing Sam’s home, I could at least preserve his digital privacy.

In all the mess, I found cleaning supplies—garbage bags, bleach spray—all recently purchased. Signs that even though the illness would eventually become too much, he still fought for life til the bitter end.

We started mid-afternoon. The sun would be long set before we bagged the last piece of garbage, took the final piece of furniture to the curb, and walked over to a local chain restaurant to get some middling rotisserie chicken.

I was struck by the act of love that I had just received—one I had never expected. I stopped, snapped a photo, and added to the Twitter thread.

When I started the thread, I had no intentions or thoughts about how long I might keep it going. But as life around me got back to normal, I found I was very much not. The pain of my brother’s death was still so acute, so close to me that the effort it took to even get out the door every day was immense. I still went to work, went to yoga classes, had drinks with friends—but it was an act. People would ask, “how are you doing?” and I would shrug and say, “OK” because, really, who wants to hear about the swirling mass of anger and grief that had replaced my heart?

But as the numbers on my Twitter thread kept inching up—number 10, a small potted plant a coworker got me; number 13, a Primal Scream song I found myself dancing along to during my daily commute; number 15, a dog I met at a brewery—I found myself working towards something. I’d ask myself: what did you find light about today? Many days, nothing. But there were those few glimmers.

“I think it’s good you’re doing this,” a friend told me over coffee one day. “It reminds people you’re going through something.”

“I think I’ll do it for one year,” I said, verbalizing a commitment I hadn’t known until that moment I was ready to make.

If I were born in 1860, I wouldn’t have running water, birth control, or the vote. However, I would have had a much more effective way to signal to people that I was deep in mourning. “A Victorian widow or widower wore the loss, literally and metaphorically, for years after the death,” Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn wrote in The Empty Room, a book about sibling loss. “Those were the days of mourning clothes and lockets that held a lock of the lost one’s hair.”

But in 2019, I had no such sartorial option. I had no way of telling people how much pain I was in unless I awkwardly brought it up—which I did, often. (Apologies to my dental hygienist who I caught off-guard.)

In a 2019 essay for VICE, Muna Mire wrote that they started doing maximalist makeup looks after their brother died in an effort to gain a modicum of control—but it was the reactions they found empowering. “When I left the house, people stared at me. Even by New York standards, I was pushing it. I loved the attention. It felt amazing. I was in such a pained state that I wanted people—even strangers—to stop and pay attention. Look at me and acknowledge that things aren’t OK, you coward. Is my face fucked up enough that you understand that?”

I believe very strongly there is no hierarchy of grief. Pain is pain is pain. However, to lose a loved one to suicide is complex. While your brain can comprehend the overwhelming evidence that mental illness is a disease that kills like any other, that suicide isn’t really a true “choice,” it is difficult for the heart to accept this. The question I kept asking Sam, in my soul, was why—why did he do this to us?

The thread became my mourning clothes. Amidst the barrage of news, of memes, of all Twitter is, my thread would pop and remind the world that I was going through it. You might be scared to talk to me about it, but goddamn it, you will see my pain.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how people responded. It started the day I started the thread. Messages began to trickle in, from people who I never even would have guessed suffered the same loss. They told me their stories; about family members and friends who had died by suicide, about a pain they carried with them and had difficulty discussing. I told them more details of mine.

There, in my Twitter DMs, I found a small community of people who had already walked down that path—who had moved past their anger and had learned to miss their loved ones as all bereaved people do. They freely offered up phone numbers, and when I messaged them out of the blue, on dark days when my grief was the most violent, they responded without hesitation.

Twitter is a hell site—we all accept this. Nazis are still allowed to post on it long after other social media sites gave them the boot. While character counts have gotten longer, it seems little has been tangibly done to curb harassment. You can even find people who don’t like pizza.

But it’s not just the proliferation of the assholes that makes Twitter so much at times. To both the appeal and detriment of the platform, anyone can sign up and post their thoughts, unfiltered, whenever they please.

Scrolling through the timeline, I began to observe how much pain people were in—and how willing they were to throw that information into the Twitter void. Laments about everything from being single to experiencing severe trauma were just common things I could expect to see at any hour of the day—sometimes multiple times within the same hour.

I hadn’t noticed this before—or if I had, it didn’t affect me as much as it did now that my heart had been torn open. But I got it. Because every time someone reached out to me to say they had lost someone they loved, that they found some joy in my own thread, I felt that spark of connection. What is the best version of Twitter, really, if not millions of people looking for just one other person to say: I understand.

So I started doing something I had never really done before. I reached out to people. If they were grieving a loss, I’d tell them I was sorry. I slid into DMs to tell writers I liked a piece that they had done. I suggested to another writer, who at that point I had never met in person, that we form a dinner club with other writers we all admired—who, again, had not met some in real life—and we actually did it.

Suddenly, Twitter was beginning to look much more human.

Grieving so openly is not without its pitfalls. As the days turned warmer, I tried to go on a few dates, wanting to reconnect with the life I had before. Call me stupid, but I’ve never googled a Tinder date ahead of time—I prefer to meet people as a blank slate rather than fill in who they are from sleuthing.

But most people don’t do that—they dig up what they can on the person who is going to sit across from them, drinking wine and making awkward chit chat. Which meant that anyone I met had already seen my thread. Maybe they didn’t know the details, but they were aware that something traumatic had happened to me.

It wasn’t just dates; it was potential new freelance clients, and people I met at conferences. The good part was that they knew; I didn’t have to tell them. But that was also the bad part. Would a person rethink a potential assignment, a friendship, a romance, because all my trauma was so out there?

The thread continued not without considerable effort on my part, not because I struggled to find light things, but because, as summer arrived and I made changes in my own life—left a job, started a new one, pursued writing more vigorously than ever before—I sometimes just forgot.

I had made a habit of going to the beach by myself. I’d go late in the afternoon, as most of the crowds were departing, drop my backpack on the shore and swim out. I’d float on my back, staring up into the deepening blue of the sky and let the waves gently bob me closer back into shore. In these moments, there was no grief, no anger, no pain. There was just me and my heartbeat.

“Remember this,” I thought to myself. “Tomorrow, when the grief hits again, you will need to remember this.”

To reflect, at length, on what it is you are grateful for is work. I did not understand that before Sam died—I do now. It’s why I had to see the thread through.

As the end of the thread began to approach—and with it, the one-year-anniversary of my brother’s death—my nerves began to thrum.

On one hand, I relished the idea of a day where not every light thing would need to be something I recorded for public consumption. However, I also feared the time when I would not have the shroud of my grief to protect me, to point to as the thing that stole days from me, that kept me up at night.

“Some part of me wants that to go on forever: for the game to go on but remain solemnly rigged in my favour. The standing ovation, the hero’s welcome, the defensive line that dissolves when I approach it—I want it all to continue indefinitely.,” writes Jayson Greene in In his book Once More We Saw Stars, a memoir of grief after the death of his young daughter. “The idea that things will go back to normal—the idea that I will be expected to keep living but gamely leap hurdles—tax season, crowded commutes, deadlines—makes me think the real pain isn’t in the leg being mangled. It’s in the way the bone sets.”

Once more of that normality set in, I would have to accept what I could still not: that my brother had died. For as long as I was alive, each year would stretch farther away from the last time I saw him, from the day he dropped me off at my apartment and I hugged him—something we didn’t do often, but that day, for some reason, I had an impulse to—and I said, “I love you”, and he said, “I love you.”

He turned his back, and walked back to the car, and he was gone.

Stephen Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash in 1974. He’d have every right to be angry for the rest of his life. But, in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Colbert said he has come to love the most terrible thing that had ever happened to him. “What punishments of gods are not gifts?” he said, paraphrasing J.R.R. Tolkien.

I will never not ache to see my brother, to talk to him, to know he is roaming the world.

But during that year, I also discovered how deep, how beautiful the human capacity for love is. It was in how people reached out to me, because of the thread. It was in how I reached out to others. And it was in my relationship with Sam—an unyielding, ferocious love I’m not sure I knew was there until he was gone.

I am learning, painfully and slowly, to love the gifts that have been given to me.

When the thread was finished—my last post was a Curtis Mayfield song, one, appropriately, about moving on— I found, to my own surprise, that I missed it. Without making that effort to look for the light things, it became easier to dwell on what was dark.

So a few weeks ago, I bought a red Moleskine notebook. I titled the first page “Light Things.” It’s a new list—just for me.

Follow H.G. Watson on Twitter.