I never thought my life story would include the death of my only sibling. It’s a story I refused to accept and ignored for years because I didn’t want it to be my life story. Now, I can no longer ignore it because God has taken a dark and broken part of my life and made it whole.
This story is about a life lost early and how my world was wrecked. This story is about how in my darkest hours of mourning Jesus was fully present. This story is about how what once was shattered, Jesus made new.
This is my story.
Growing up it was only my brother, Bernard, and I. Since our parents worked a lot we grew incredibly close. We were 2 years apart and were instant best friends upon my arrival into this world. Every memory from my childhood includes my brother. He was always right there to play with me, climb trees in the summer, build snowmen in the winter, and sneakily watch 90210 when my parents weren’t home.
As we got older, what we did together changed, but our relationship didn’t. He would drive us around, have Taco Bell for dinner, and go see the premiere of Harry Potter at midnight on a school night with me. We had the same odd sense of humor where we would laugh at things no one else thought was funny and we laughed all the time.
While there were parts of us that were similar, there were areas where we were extreme opposites. I was a planner and Bernie was spontaneous. I would think every decision through with all possible outcomes while he would just do whatever he felt at the moment and figure out the rest later. I would hold myself back out of fear of failure while he would take risks and try anything once. All of these opposite attributes we possessed could be “good” or “harmless” in moderation. The problem was, I knew moderation but my brother didn’t.
I was fourteen when Bernie led me to the Lord. He was sixteen, had been attending church with his girlfriend when he asked me to go with him. I went, talked to my brother about everything I was learning, and decided I needed Jesus in my life. For a short time, my brother and I were on the same page. We loved church and we loved Jesus.
Unfortunately, as I started to grow in my walk with the Lord, my brother struggled. He struggled with the idea that there were things in this world he couldn’t take part in while also having a relationship with Jesus. He had to choose and eventually, he did. He stopped attending church, his girlfriend broke up with him, and his “religion” was a thing of the past.
Over the next few years, both of our lives drastically changed. I moved out of state to college and married my high school sweetheart. Bernie was hanging out with a new group of friends, started dating an older female with a questionable past, and was never home.
Certain areas in my brother’s life were starting to become questionable too. He had a great paying job and still lived at home with my parents but for whatever reason, he never had money, his 401k was drained, and his savings account was emptied. He was coming up with excuse after excuse and asking my parents for money. We knew something was going on, but we didn’t know exactly what. We assumed all of his money was going towards supporting his girlfriend because she never stayed in one place for any length of time and seemed to always be out of a job.
After my college graduation, my husband, James, and I moved back to our hometown. We had high hopes and expectations for our future and were filled with excitement to begin our journey into full-time ministry. However, our first year out of college didn’t go as planned because exactly one month after moving back home, I got a call that would change my entire year and eventually my life.
My mother called and told us that my brother came to her for help. He has been battling a drug addiction with pills for two years and the last eight months he was using heroin. He wanted to go to a treatment center so he can detox and to turn away from the life of a drug addict.
My brother is a drug user who is using heroin?
How could this happen?
No one in my family has a history of drug abuse.
What is heroin?
I was completely clueless about the strength of this drug and how many lives are lost because of it. After returning from detox Bernie relapsed fairly quickly. He never talked about his drug addiction and still maintained his story of being clean. My parents and I were more educated now on drug usage and the signs. We were no longer ignorant and knew he wasn’t telling the truth.
Like so many other drug users my brother lost his job due to calling off too much and a change in performance. Now, what money did he have to feed his drug addiction? He became so desperate he would do nearly anything to get high. One day my parents got a call that my brother had been arrested for a bank robbery. WHAT? How could my kind, loving, compassionate brother rob a bank? Is this a joke? Where are the hidden cameras? We saw the surveillance videos from the bank robbery and sure enough, it was him.
Bernie spent the next two months in jail. I went to the jail to visit him and it was like a movie. I sat in a waiting room and was buzzed through a thick metal door when it was visiting hour. I walked into a room that was lined with cement cubicles and those old school phones to talk through because a thick window separated you from the other side.
I stood there and cried.
I couldn’t walk towards my brother who was now dressed in orange. Everything happened so fast that my brain and heart couldn’t catch up to what I was seeing. I begged him to change his life. I begged him to stop because what was next if he continued would be death. My brother was still in denial. He didn’t think he would get in trouble for robbing a bank, he didn’t think drugs were an issue in his life, and he thought he was invincible.
While in jail he called every day. He was ready to open up and share how he got to the place he was. He explained he got addicted to pills after being in the hospital for a staph infection. Eventually, the pills didn’t give him the high he was looking for and heroin was suggested. My brother said his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. He was a risk-taker and would try anything once, so he said yes to heroin and that is when the heroin took over.
After learning how Bernie got to where he was, we started to talk about other things. We talked a lot about our family, our lives and how amazing our childhood was. We talked about God, church, and why he walked away from it all. He read the entire New Testament while in jail and shared with me all of his thoughts on what he was reading. He was opening his heart to everything he was taught as a teen and realizing his life was not what God wanted for him.
Bernie then asked if he could go to Teen Challenge while he waited for his court hearings for the bank robbery. It was approved for him to go but it wasn’t court-ordered. Meaning, if he wanted to leave he could- they couldn’t physically force him to be there. And if he did leave, a bounty hunter would come find him and take him back to jail, not Teen Challenge.
The next few months were spent at Teen Challenge. Eventually, we were allowed to go visit him. He was clean, smiling, had lost some weight, was joking around, and looked like the brother I grew up with and loved deeply. He would talk about the future and what he wanted to do after this was all over, he shared how he gave his life back to Christ and was filled with hope in the midst of an uncertain and scary season. He knew he would still need to face the consequences of his actions but he was hopeful. Drug addicts aren’t hopeful, they are only focused on when their next high will come, there is no future in their mind. So, to see his mind change and his words change, it felt like a reflection of his heart. His heart was really changing, so I then became hopeful.
One Saturday evening we went to Teen Challenge for our weekly visit. When we walked in the staff looked at us confused and asked why we were there. We looked back at them confused too. Why wouldn’t we be there? We come every week. They told us that the previous night my brother ran away and by the time the supervisors were notified, my brother had already ran out of the building. They went outside to look for him but no one could find him. They thought someone had called us to let us know, but no one did. I screamed and cried wondering how they could forget to call us. I told them that my brother could be dead in a ditch and no one would know because somehow a phone call fell through the cracks. The specific details of what caused my brother to leave are sparse. We have a few ideas of what could’ve happened, but we’re not certain.
We had no clue where my brother was and if he was even alive. The bounty hunter began to search for him. My parents spent the entire weekend driving to every place they could think Bernie would be in hopes to find him. I spent my nights unable to sleep and crying, begging God for my brother to be found alive. I knew he would go back to jail but at least we would know he was safe and staying away from drugs.
Four days later the bounty hunter called my mom to tell her that a body of a white male was found dead from a drug overdose in a bathroom stall of a local library. The body fit the description of my brother and she was told to call the coroner’s office. When she called they told her that they would run the fingerprints of the body to see if it matched anyone in their system. If it didn’t, my parents would have to go the next day to identify the body.
Not even ten minutes later they called my mother back, who was sitting in the parking lot of a store waiting to hear the fate of her son. They told her the prints did match with someone in their system- my brother’s. Because my brother was arrested his prints were on file, so, while that saved us from having to go down and identify the body, it didn’t save us from the horrendous outcome.
My mother called crying hysterically. I’ve never heard a noise come from someone from such a deep place of pain until I heard my mother’s cry. My mother who was always so strong and never overly emotional was totally and utterly broken. I never want to hear that sound again. I went right into caretaker mode and was comforting her and telling her that it would be OK, that we would get through this and I would come over right away.
Immediately, I called my husband at work and told him. He didn’t want me driving alone to my parents so he would come home and take me. I stood in the living room waiting. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t process what was happening. James quickly arrived at our house and as soon as I laid eyes on him I collapsed onto the floor and cried such a deep intense cry. He ran over and just held me. I felt until that point I couldn’t get anything out. I was in a state of shock and seeing my husband who is my rock, allowed me to feel the magnitude of what just occurred.
Eventually, I picked myself off the floor and we headed to my parents. While in the car a worship song from my childhood kept playing on repeat over and over in my head. Just one part of the song: “My God is an awesome God who reigns from heaven above with wisdom, power, and love. My God is an awesome God.”
I can’t explain it but in the deepest, darkest, most painful part of my life, the only response my spirit could utter was to worship. At that moment I knew my God was an awesome God. That nothing could ever happen to change that. I knew in the depths of my soul God was reigning above all with His mighty wisdom, His perfect power, and through His pure love. Even in the midst of all of this- He hasn’t changed.
I made a decision that day: the God I served before my brother’s death would be the same God I serve after my brother’s death.
Four days after Bernie died was Christmas and the day after Christmas was his funeral. Hundreds of people came out to support us and many reached out to my parents to ensure they were loved and supported.
January 2011 is when my mom called me to tell me my brother wanted help with his addiction to heroin. December of that same year was when he died. Those 12 months were the scariest months of my life, but the 12 months that followed his death were the hardest. I was hurting, confused, and grieving alone. I felt like I had to be strong for my parents and everyone was so concerned for their well being that I ignored my own.
Siblings are often called the forgotten grievers. Others don’t know how to acknowledge the sibling because our culture places the focus on the parents, more specifically, the mother. People would come up to me, give me a big hug, pull away and say, “How are your parents doing?”
Was I invisible? Do siblings not grieve as deep as parents because from my point of view it seemed the same. I’ve never lived in a world without my brother and I had to figure out how to do that by myself. My parents had an entire life before my brother was born. They knew how to exist without him. How do I move forward with my life minus a person who’s always been there?
The year following Bernie’s death I couldn’t sleep. I would lay next to my sleeping husband and read the Bible while asking God to bring me comfort and heal my brokenness. Some nights I would physically cry out to God asking Him a million questions, I wanted to make sense of everything that happened the year prior. Other nights I couldn’t mutter one word and would only lay there and cry while holding my Bible tightly against my chest.
Those nights were nights Jesus met me there in my bedroom. I never felt the presence of God so strongly prior. It was almost like He was physically present in the room holding me in His arms. It was those sleepless nights where I clung to my Jesus that healed my heart and strengthened my faith. That season birthed a passion for prayer inside of me wanting others to feel the real presence of Jesus too.
For a long time, I didn’t want to talk about what happened and it took many years to get to this place of sharing. One evening I was sitting in my living room watching a 20/20 special on the heroin epidemic our country is facing. I was watching interviews with parents and siblings sharing they had no clue how their loved one chose a life of drugs. They were hurting and confused, their faces felt familiar. I cried watching knowing the pain all these families were facing and how alone they must feel. It was then I realized this needs to be talked about. There are countless families hurting from drug abuse who need to be told they will make it. They will survive this horrible gut-wrenching pain and learn how to live again in their new reality.
To those who have lost someone to drugs:
When you experience a death like this, the former “you” is no longer. There’s been a major shift in your life and as long as you fight it, you can never become the new “you.” Your life will be two separate entities: before the death and after the death.
The great news is, there’s peace and comfort that is beyond our understanding only Jesus provides. When you allow Jesus into that dark and hurting place He can heal your heart and you can begin to embrace the new “you.” And once you do, I think you will grow to like him/her.
Please know, you are a survivor. If I can survive this, you can too. I pray for you daily and I hope you pray for me too, we’re in this together.