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Gratitude and Grief

04/17/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

In my life, one of the people I am most grateful for is my oldest brother Steve. Steve was a musician, a naturalist and poet. He taught me how to play guitar, took me back-packing, encouraged me to read great literature, like Moby Dick, and inspired me to write. I am deeply grateful for all of these gifts he shared with me. I would not be writing this blog without his passion for writing and showing me the power of the written word.

Passionately, Steve would describe the shamanistic power of words and how the act of writing has the power to heal us and also articulate those aspects of life that seem impossible to pin down. He presented a new concept, that words have the power to create a bridge between our minds that connects us and allow us to communicate even when space or time may separate us otherwise.
I feel that power of words more than ever because a few years ago, I lost my brother unexpectedly, but I still feel connected to him. As I approach the anniversary of his passing, I have some new gratitude for him. The gratitude for my brother grows and somewhat surprisingly, our relationship still grows.

Often, I reflect on all the aspects of my being that he influenced. He loved music and movies. In college, he was a critic for the college paper. When I was only 7 years old, I modeled myself after him. I asked him how I could become a critic and he told me to start writing reviews of movies, music and books, asking questions like, "What made that movie enjoyable?" or "Why was that movie so moving?' Those questions sparked my enthusiasm for writing.

Still, I always doubted my abilities and never thought it was possible to write or have anything published. But he believed in me, as well as encouraging me to write and keep improving my writing skills. Recently, when I started a project to write a book, I thanked him out loud. I smiled as I realized how vibrantly he is still with me. I know that physically losing someone does not end a relationship. As I see his influence in my life, I feel our relationship still grow.

Reflecting on the gratitude I have for Steve, I think back to the last night we were together. I had flown to California to see my parents and he showed up unexpectedly, boarding a plane with just a toothbrush and his prized, Martin guitar. That night, he asked, "Do you want to go in the back yard and play guitar?" I was exhausted after a busy week and knew I needed sleep for the flight the next day, but I told him, 'Sure, let's do it." I am so glad that I took this final chance to be with him.

The sun was setting as we sat down and started jamming. After I showed him a new song I was working on, we started playing and lost track of time as we fell into the groove. He played one of his favorite Grateful Dead songs and I accompanied him. After a few hours, we both stood up and gave each other a strong, deep hug. We really had connected in that deep and profound way that only music allow.

After replaying this scene in my head, I started to feel how gratitude can help when I am experiencing loss by letting a little love and light come in to start the healing. Every time I pick up a guitar, I am reminded of the gift of music he gave me. Now, I teach guitar and have the opportunity to give back a gift that Steve gave me.

After he passed away, I received my brother's Martin guitar. I had ambivalent feelings about getting it. I was afraid that having the guitar might remind me of how much I missed Steve. Thankfully, I didn't experience those negative feelings. When I opened the guitar case to find the smell of his cigarettes that I used to find unpleasant, the smell actually evoked a pleasant memory, reminding me of his presence.

Taking some lyrics Steve wrote, I spent a few months putting music to his words, feeling him guide me. A friend volunteered his basement studio to record the song. Of course, on the recording, I played his Martin guitar.

Hesitantly, I shared this song and story with my family and then played it for my students on Steve's Martin guitar. I felt like this might be too painful to share or that it might bring up some sad memories. On the contrary, everyone expressed gratitude for sharing it. Some people even said that it helped them work through their losses and find hope that they could honor the loss of their loved ones and still enjoy their memories.

One parent sent an email, saying that their daughter was so touched by the story of my brother, that she was finally able to talk about losing her grandmother and start the healing process.

I still have an ongoing conversation with Steve and feel his influence on me as well as his presence in my life. My son, who never met Steve, asks about him. I recount many stories of Steve and his intelligence, passion and humor as well as the gratitude I have for the gifts he gave that I can now pass on.

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