Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
A few weeks after my brother died, I turned too quickly in the kitchen and knocked a large glass vase into the sink, where it shattered like a firework. I was angry at myself for a moment for being careless and clumsy before realizing the vase would not have been there had Liam not died, had people not sent flowers.
When your brother dies suddenly, and your life shatters like so much broken glass, everything is suddenly about your brother being dead. This means you don’t know how to feel about doing the normal things you must do because you are still a living human being, even though it may not feel that way. The car still needs gas. You still have to eat food and wear clothes.
When I hung up after my dad called and said, “Liam,” and “come home,” my friends packed a bag for me, asking what I wanted while I stared at piles of clothes and wondered, what do you wear after your brother dies? It’s not like hiking or a trip to the beach; there’s no packing list. I didn’t know what the coming days’ activities would entail. Light layers? Comfortable shoes? Trying to choose anything, like what socks I wanted to wear, was suddenly impossible. I didn’t want anything so I just needed to pick something, but my brain didn’t seem to know how to choose without wanting, so I stared at things and said “um” until someone just sat me down and put socks on me.
It was easier to put on a sweatshirt I had stolen from Liam’s room months earlier with a pattern of dolphins in the colors of an ’80s aerobics class that said the word “Dolphin” in jazzy script. People always ask me where it’s from and I say, “My brother’s room,” because, like a lot of things about Liam, I don’t know where he got it from.
The only advice anyone ever really gives you about grief is that “there’s no wrong way” to do it. The part they leave out is that you will feel certain that you found the one way to do it wrong. I was so sad, but also guilty that I wasn’t sad about the right things, or sad about them in the right way. Even having the wherewithal to worry about what I should be doing or how I should be feeling seemed to indicate I wasn’t sad enough; if I was sad enough, wouldn’t I just be sad?
I reminded myself constantly that there’s no wrong way to grieve.
There’s no wrong way to grieve, so I ate McDonald’s on the floor.
There’s no wrong way to grieve, so I smoked pot in my friend Anna’s car and told her, “I have to have all the grandkids now.”
There’s no wrong way to grieve, so I Snapchat my brother every day.
There’s no wrong way to grieve, so I looked really hot at his funeral.
We live in the kind of cozy hometown where everyone knew me or my dad or my brother. People I went to high school with and hadn’t spoken to since sent me Facebook messages expressing condolences before some of my cousins called back. I was edgy whenever I left the house, worried that I would see someone I knew and have to stare at them while they stared at me and try to figure out if their face looked like the face of someone who knew that my brother died. It was a twisted kind of fame; I was wary of being recognized or drawn into a conversation I didn’t want. People started to cry when they saw me.
Preparing for my brother’s services felt like preparing for the worst high school reunion, in which I was expected to be on stage to show everyone what Sad looked like.
When I am entering a situation I am nervous about, like meeting a boyfriend’s mom or a potential employer, I soothe myself with a long ritual of making myself beautiful. I take comfort in looking nice, knowing that if I get too nervous I can just stay very quiet, very polite, and very pretty. It never works out that way, if only because I can never shut the fuck up, but it is an easy incantation to calm myself down. It’s like putting on body armor for uncomfortable social engagements. It’s never the most important thing, but it is often one of the few things I can completely control.
This was the most visible I might ever be, and I felt robbed of my defense mechanism. Death sours the indulgence of vanity while also, somehow, demanding it. I wanted to look pretty, because I was going to be stared at, but how dare I care about looking pretty at my brother’s funeral? It wasn’t narcissism, at least not entirely, but I felt guilty as if it were.
I wanted to look pretty but not so pretty I didn’t also look sad. It was not enough that I was sad. This is the lesson that young women learn: How you feel matters less than how you appear to feel. It’s why strangers tell women to smile on the street. I expected a mourner to come up to me and say “Cry” until my mascara stained the carpet and they were satisfied. I might’ve welcomed it; I was so desperate to fulfill everyone’s expectations of Liam’s Sad Sister, if only someone would tell me how.
My mom and I went to shop for mourning clothes with her best friend, Beth. We went to a place called Frugal Fannie’s, where I zipped my mother in and out of black dresses. We shared a travel mug of hot coffee and Bailey’s.
No one is supposed to be 25 when their brother dies. I should’ve been worrying over whether or not a dress was too slutty for his wedding, not too slutty for his wake. The black dresses I found were all Little Black Dresses made for cocktail hours and clubs with covers. They had hemlines that sailed above my fingertips when my arms hung straight and beads that tinkled flirtatiously when I sneezed. Months later, my friend Jane held up the dress she’d worn under a blazer to the funeral — black velvet, skin-tight — and cried, “This is what I wore to your brother’s funeral! I wore this to Hannah’s birthday party last weekend!” None of us knew what we were doing.
When I was trying on dresses and asked my mom if they were too short, if it mattered that my tattoo was showing, she said, “No, that’s you.” When I stepped into black BCBG heels and asked if they were too tall, too expensive, she shrugged and said, “Your brother just died.” I had to stop worrying about my body in mourning because it was, simply, my body. I had to stop worrying about how to be Liam’s Sad Sister because I am Liam’s sister and I’m the only one, so I get to decide how to do it.
My mom told me I looked beautiful in the dresses I chose, and she also told me that was okay.
Through my brother’s services, my best friends flanked me like beautiful bodyguards. We kept cracking off-color jokes about Pretty Little Liars and sneaking to the basement to kick off our shoes and take shots of Fireball while I practiced my eulogy on them. I felt like the photo negative of a bride, and they were my bridesmaids. Tits and long legs and tattoos flashed through layers of black fabric, our youth at odds with our grief.
The next morning, I stood at the altar where I’d had my first sip of wine ever and gave Liam’s eulogy to a church full of people who had once known my brother. I wore a Ralph Lauren dress that was almost too small; I had to zip it up on an inhale. It had long crepe sleeves, kissed my waist, and skated tenderly over my hips. My mom let me borrow the necklaces she never lets me wear. I didn’t brush my hair.
Liam’s girlfriend looked beautiful at his services. She wore jewelry he’d given her, clothes he’d complimented: she got to decide how to do it, too. The only item of my clothing I can recall him complimenting is a sweatshirt that says “FRIES BEFORE GUYS.” Liam was the kind of overprotective older brother who would’ve preferred that I exist without a corporeal form to be seen or touched by any men, ever. He would’ve been furious to see me in a little black dress, hugging every boy he’d ever known, but, guess what, not nearly as furious as I was to see him in a coffin.
I got to decide how to be Liam’s Sister, so I did it exactly as a little sister ought to: however would piss him off the most. So I put out all his most awkward school photos and I looked really hot at his funeral. I Snapchat him every day in the clothes I steal from his drawers and I flirt with his friends hard enough to wake the dead. “Try and stop me,” I say, and wish that he would.