Living with Acceptance

We have the next installment of our series from a wonderful family that lost a hero, a Special Operations Marine, and a brother, cousin and friend. We are proud to introduce Tyler, the brother of Captain Stanford H. Shaw III, who discusses sibling loss in a genuine way and allows us in on his experience of an acute loss, subsequent grief, and journey towards acceptance.

This is not a happy post. I just want to get that out of the way. Yes, despite the crushing loss of my brother, I am a genuinely happy person, but sometimes the oppressive weight of his absence brings me, metaphorically, to my knees. And that’s ok.

So that’s the perspective from which I write today—from down on the ground, gasping for breath; from my pulled-over car as the tears come so heavily that my windshield wiper eyelids can’t blink them away fast enough; from that broken person who sees the first post about “National Sibling Day,” and knows to avoid social media for 48 hours, because even after 24, Newsfeed will catch you up on everything you’ve missed, and it’s just too painful to see all your friends smiling next to their still-living siblings. And that’s ok.

Today I write, not for hope or encouragement, but for permission.  Permission to feel whatever you need to feel, without apologies of excuses. My name is Tyler. I’m 30 years old, I work in elementary special education, and for 29 years, I had an awesome older brother—a Special Operations Marine, Captain Stanford H Shaw III. To me, he was my big brother, Ford.  Ford died on March 10, 2015, when his helicopter went down in a night training mission.  He was killed alongside six fellow Marines and four Army National Guardsmen, in what was a highly publicized crash.

Tyler's dear brother, Ford

Tyler's dear brother, Ford

We heard the news on the internet, but names were being withheld. My mother called every person she could, trying to find out if Ford was on that helicopter. I went to work, because I couldn’t sit around and worry. Worry changes nothing and besides, I had students who depend on me. Take care of those you lead. Complete the mission, right? I told my coworkers I needed to have my phone on that day. My mother called at 10am to tell me it was confirmed that Ford was on the helicopter, but it hadn’t been located (it crashed in water). It was officially still a “search and rescue.”

All my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc, were at my house. I stayed at work because…what else was I going to do? Sit, wait, worry?  My students have behavior disabilities.  I can solve their problems. My problem had no solution. 

Everyone was hopeful they would find seven Marines treading water. Not me. I’ve always been a pragmatist. The second it was confirmed that Ford was on-board I started mourning my brother. People told me to hope. I wanted to strangle them.  Don’t. TELL.  Me.  How. To. FEEL!

At noon, my mother called again. “The Marines are here. You’re a designated next of kin. They have to inform you in person that Ford is missing. You can come here, or they’ll come see you at work.” Well, that was out of the question. Tell me in front of my kindergarteners and first graders that my brother was likely just killed? Absolutely not. Shield them from the desperation and anguish of death. Protect their innocence. They come first. I left work.

That was the last time I was a whole person.

They told me Ford was missing. Eventually, they left. My extended family smothered us with messages of hope. I remember saying, “We have to start accepting the fact that Ford isn’t coming home. My brother is dead.” “Don’t say that!  He’s a strong swimmer. If anyone has a chance of surviving, he does,” someone countermanded. I deadpanned, “We need to stop clinging to a false hope.  I’m mourning my brother.” I quickly learned that some people have a really big problem if you don’t mourn the way they expect you to. To hell with them.

The Marines returned at 1am to deliver the confirmation that Ford was killed. By this time, his fiancé, also a Marine, had arrived from North Carolina where two weeks before, she had moved in with Ford for the first time in their 10-year relationship, as they were finally stationed together. We all knew he was dead, but hearing official word gave us the right to start properly mourning. Everyone else could back off with their damnable false hope. That’s when I started learning about myself.

I am an extremely social person. Truly extroverted. I draw my energy from crowds.  I’m “on” as long as there are two or more people in the room. I pack every day with work and social obligations. It’s trite to say that a rolling stone gathers no moss, but I’m rubbed smooth by constant rolling. If my plans are canceled, I’ve replaced them with new ones before texting, “No worries.” I know what I’m doing every day of the month, and I book my next get-together or catch-up six to eight weeks out. I have always been this way, and my friends and acquaintances are constantly in awe of how much I’m able to pack into non-work hours.

Then my brother died. I wanted everyone OUT. The irony of this, of course, is that my house immediately became Central Command. Family kept pouring in; friends from everywhere came out of the woodwork; military personnel constantly in and out with sensitive information; family members sometimes had to be told, “You need to leave.  This is a private meeting.”  Neighbors with food; family with food; coworkers with food. Gift cards, fruit baskets, flower arrangements, delivery men, news vans (the WORST). For the next ten days, as we fought to recover Ford’s remains and arrange services, my house was a drop-kicked hornets nest, and all I wanted to do was stand up and scream, “GET OUT! GET THE F*** OUT OF MY HOUSE! GO!  LEAVE!  TAKE YOUR S*** AND GO! NOW!!!” I wanted every well-intentioned but overbearing relation out. I was shocked at myself—the only people I wanted around were three Marines who knew Ford best, and his fiancé. They were the only comfort, these three Marines whom I hardly knew, and my supposed-to-be sister-in-law.

The beautiful Shaw Family

The beautiful Shaw Family

Of course, what I needed didn’t matter. Everyone else had his or her own needs, and each person’s needs were paramount. I confided in my mother, how I couldn’t  stand the constant crowd, and she wisely stated what I knew but couldn’t verbalize: “I know. But they need to be here. For themselves.”  Well forget what I need. I’m just his brother. I only just lost the one person on the planet that’s known me through every childhood experience that shaped the man I’ve become. The one person I could always rely on to know who I am, and to be there for my entire life, as we started our own families. I only lost half of myself, but please, everyone, tell me how I can entertain you, instead of crafting a eulogy for the brother I will never have again. I finished that eulogy the morning of his wake, when my parents and his fiancé drove to Delaware under police escort, to bring Ford home. I had to miss that. Because I was just his brother.  And everyone else had needs.

Ford’s services were incredible. The 500-something people who attended, the community that lined the streets, the Marines, the friends, the family—I will never forget the tragic beauty of it all. But then I had to return to my life.

I returned to work, and my students were so happy to see me after more than a week of being away. Their parents had told them what happened, despite my wanting to shield them from such tragedy. One particularly dear-to-my-heart kindergartener gave me a picture he drew of a small, green man. Saint Patrick’s Day had passed while I was gone, so I asked, “Aw!  Is that the leprechaun that visited while I was away?” “No,” he explained, “That’s your brother, the soldier.  Do you miss him?” The lump in my throat was impossible to speak around, so I just nodded and mouthed, “Yes,” before burying my face in the closet to “find some supplies.”

That was the only time I cried that day. In the year and a half since, I have felt guilty every day because, while I still put 100% of my heart into my students and their continued success, 100% of my shriveled, withered, dying heart can only fill a bucket. It used to fill oceans. I love my job, my coworkers, and my students. I don’t think any of them see a difference, but I feel it. The crushing weight of emptiness has reduced the sun of my heart to the glimmer of a firefly, but I will continue to shine as bright as a firefly can, until I burn out.

This “not-being-enough-ness” is far worse personally, than professionally. Ask any surviving sibling what it feels like on Mother’s Day. Ford and I were two halves of a whole.  Now I’m just a half. With the exception of Ford’s birthday and death day, Mother’s and Father’s Day are now two of the worst days of the year. It is an excruciating pain to hug your mother on a day that celebrates her, and know you alone are not enough. To see in her eyes that she feels like half a mother—because half of her identity as such is gone—and to know that you will never be enough (because how could you be?), but you can’t fault her for feeling that way so you just have to love, knowing your love is inadequate, is to know the burden of a surviving sibling.

Father’s Day is no better.  Thanksgiving? Drink. Easter? Drink. Christmas?  Forget it.  Decorating the tree with all the homemade picture ornaments from when he was in preschool? Chip a chunk off my frozen heart to chill your drink. Hang a stocking that will remain empty? My heart just sank the Titanic. Holidays are always the worst after a death because they’re filled with memory and absence. I would bet anyone reading this already knows that. Holidays are about traditions, the past, and memory. That’s hard, but what about the future? What about all the lost possibilities?  What about all the things that will never be?

Ford was engaged, and after a decade with his awesome fiancé, there were definitely going to be nieces and/or nephews in my future. I’m a gay man, and while adoption and/or surrogacy are options, having a child is going to be extremely difficult for me. I love children, and I’m pretty sure I would have been an awesome uncle. For years, I sort of saw myself as the best uncle my brother’s kids could ask for, and that would be enough for me—I wouldn’t need children of my own, because I would be there for his. That’s off the table now. My parents want grandchildren, and I’m their only hope for that, now. A hope that, as I steamroll into my thirties, I realize may never become a reality. I’m single, and with one four-month exception, I’ve been single for 30 years. I will not have children without a husband. I want to provide my children with the kind of home and family that has been so integral to my identity.

Let’s say I do get married. Ford is my best man. So…I don’t have a best man. Do I leave a space where he should stand? Do I put a picture there? Do I forget it completely and fill his space with someone else? No one can ever fill Ford’s space. My husband will never know Ford. My past and future will never share the present. My life will forever be disconnected. How do we, as surviving siblings, bear this impossible weight?

Finally, as I look towards the future, I can’t help but think about my parents. Some day, hopefully decades from now, they will pass away, too. I will make every decision about their services alone. I will settle their estate alone. I will weep at their graves alone.  In this world, I will be alone. Yes, that is only one of endless possibilities, but it is the one I dread above all else—to be the last one standing from my nuclear family. To know that when my flame gutters out, our line is ended.

This is not a happy post. This post is about living with the weight of existence. Since Ford died, I have said, “Yes,” to everything.  I have pushed myself to new limits—I fear less, risk more. I live harder, knowing that life may not be kind, but I will push that despair away as long as possible, because in spite of everything, there is joy to be found in this world, and I will never stop looking for it. He wouldn’t want me to.

Ford’s life ended too soon, but I am here, and I will live for us both. When I see him again, I’ll have some amazing stories to tell, but in the meantime, I will live, truly and fully. I will live.

Captain H. Stanford Shaw, III

Captain H. Stanford Shaw, III