Chris Swindell and Jenn Swindell Johnson

Time Stopped When My Brother Died

By Jenn Johnson, Guest Contributor

I lost my little brother, Chris, on 7/13/18 – a day before my wedding. The last text I sent my brother was that day, saying, “don’t worry about attending the wedding – I’d rather you be in a healthy headspace than somewhere that isn’t good for you” because he was doing so well in a recovery center in Maine. It was so much more critical for him to maintain sobriety than attend my wedding in a town close to temptations he might not be able to turn away from. Chris replied, “I love you, Jenn; thanks for understanding,” and that was the last time I’d ever hear from him. 

Time stopped when my dad called to tell me Chris had died from a fentanyl overdose. I remember picking up my phone, thinking my dad was calling to say “have a great day,” as it was early the next morning, the day before my wedding. The immediate silence was enough for my brain to start scrambling with thoughts of “what’s wrong,” “who is hurt”? I remember sitting up in bed and saying, “What?! No! Really? What …” then just sobbing. I dropped my phone, woke up my (now) husband, who then grabbed my phone to see who was on the line. I found myself on my knees crying in my closet, trying to catch my breath. It’s so vivid; it feels like yesterday. I can still feel the immense pain that hit me like a spear through the heart. 

Grieving a sibling’s loss flows like waves as there are moments of calm and peace followed by outbursts of tears and extreme sadness. The first year was rough, especially in the first few months. I had nightmares for weeks, and I couldn’t sleep. I was worried about my parents and youngest brother; I’m the oldest sibling and wanted to protect my two younger brothers. I struggled with many emotions and questions like if not attending my wedding was a trigger for him to use? Was it my fault? Am I the reason he’s dead? It took a toll on me mentally as no matter how many times I’ve been told it’s not my fault, I still wonder. I was angry at him, the dealer he bought from, the sober house he OD’d in, just everything. Hell, I was even mad at myself for telling him to get his shit together because “it’s not that hard” a few weeks prior. 

There was the reality that Chris’s birthday was November 1,, and he wouldn’t be here to celebrate another year with friends and family — he would have been 29 that year. There was the haunting empty chair at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it felt weird to bring his name up, but it also felt strange not to. It was kind of a big elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore. It hurt.

About 3-4 months after my brother’s passing, I attended a Supper with Siblings event at Gilly’s House. I was petrified and anxious; I was late because I put in the correct address but not the right town. I remember not wanting them to judge me if I had to tell my story of loss. I could barely get through my story because I just kept crying. But being at that meeting helped me; it made me feel understood and supported because losing a sibling is different from losing a parent or a child, and for once, I belonged. My dad always says this is “a club no one wants to join, but everyone is welcome.” I continued to go to Siblings Supporting SIblings meetings monthly, which gradually helped make the first year more bearable. It gave me tips and ideas on coping and helped me understand that it’s five steps forward and seven steps back. You don’t move from one phase of grief to the next without cycling backward, and that’s OK. There is no step-by-step guide for this, and everyone grieves differently.

I became part of a steering committee to start a local group for siblings who’ve lost a sibling due to overdose, which helped during the second year — because now I could help others not feel as lost and secluded as I had. I know Chris wouldn’t want us to sit and dwell and be depressed. He loved helping others, and the best way to remember and honor him is by doing what he loved. 

I can now tell my story to offer hope to others and say: “You will be okay. You will be able to talk about your sibling without bawling your eyes out to the point you can’t speak. You will remember the good times over the bad. Life will be different, but you will persevere, year after year. Our siblings are not defined by their addiction, just as our siblings’ actions shouldn’t define us.”

I love and miss my brother every day. Still, as time goes on, the good memories I have of him and the support from these sibling groups make it so much more manageable, and I find myself gratefully remembering him and everything he meant to us and everyone else he encountered. 

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