Jennie Burke wants you to know a single fact about her: her brother Matt died. After challenging him for several years to confront his addiction, she’s now reached the point where she can say she’s proud of him for fighting as best he could.
Find Jennie on Twitter at @jennieburke and on Instagram at @jennieburkewriter.
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As child, I would describe him as liquid sunshine. Sunshine. He had his face was covered in freckles. And my mom called them angel kisses. And she said that’s where the angels kissed him on the way in from heaven. He had strawberry blonde hair; he had a squeaky voice. He was scrappy. He was not a big, not a big guy like very muscley. Fast wirey. Naughty, funny, jokester, we spent our summers on a lake in Western Maryland growing up and the kids used to like, like, we used to stuff him, and tire innertubes like roll him up in an inner tube and then roll him down a hill into the lake, we used to put them on top of the back of a dog, the back to the family dogs and like throw ball for the dogs and they like he’d ride the dogs into the lake. So he had so much energy. One really happy memory of my whole life were kind of these magical years that we had in adulthood where we were raising our children together. And he was like a human jungle gym. I mean, like he always had many children hanging off of him. Very social, very outgoing, very friendly, loved music, loved concerts. But I do know that like drugs and alcohol were part of the culture of him partying.
I think that he had probably been addicted for some time, but he hid it really well. So our first thought was that it was alcoholism. And so we live in a pretty small town. So sometimes people would see him and maybe think that he had been drinking or whatever. But then we came to know that he was actually abusing medication too. And my initial reaction was, like fear and anger. And then I kind of, I moved on to acceptance that this might happen. But I never accepted that I couldn’t change it. I just never accepted that. And I, I tried. I tried for years to try to change it. Which is pretty hard and I wish that I could have changed it. So yeah, it’s heartbreaking to think about and then you wonder, like all of the other things like, gosh, what were there? Were there things that happened that he didn’t tell us about? Were there things that he is, his friends know that maybe we don’t know, like, what could we have done differently?
The day after Matt died. My husband got on a plane right away to go to Matt’s family. So I was just at the house with my own kids. And they completely cared for me. I mean, I was kind of comatose on our sofa. They took care of the house; they took care of the meals. So that didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me was how they protected me like if someone came to the door, because they wanted to see me like they kind of stood guard. Mom, do you want me to get the door? Okay, but I don’t want to see anybody, okay, and then they’d go and they’d like say, Yeah, she’s not feeling well, she’s you know, she thanks you for coming over. I have four kids. And my youngest daughter who is 15, had major spinal surgery on New Year’s Eve. And during her recovery, I was mindful of the number of opiates that she was taking. And I was counting pills in the kitchen. And I was crying, thinking about my brother. And his journey, trying to reduce the number of pills that he was taking.
So the next morning, my daughter came downstairs and she said, mommy, I had a dream last night about you and Uncle Matt. And I said, what happened? And she said, Well, you were standing over there at the counter crying over the pills. And I had been doing that the night before. And she was asleep. There’s no way she could have known. And she said, and Uncle Matt came in, and he wanted you to stop that. And I asked her, I said, was he angry? Or was he sad? Because my brother had been really angry with me in the last years of his life, as I tried to kind of force sobriety on him. And she said, No, he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t sad. He was just really matter of fact, he wanted you to stop doing that. And he said that he wanted you to enjoy your family. So on the anniversary, of the day anniversary, that was my goal, to enjoy my family to do what I thought that he would want to do. And it was just a wonderful day. It was a beautiful day. My kids were just so lovely to me. And something really special happened actually, on the day after my brother died, one of my friends planted a rosebush, in my front yard, and bloomed on the anniversary of his passing.
There’s all these like, it’s magic. I don’t know what it is, I will never be able to understand it. There’s so much about grief that you can’t, you can’t understand, it’s actually part of the beauty of it. For people who like to try to control things, which I think is all of us in some way, shape or form. There is no control, grief wins every time. And that’s actually like to surrender. In a world where we are trying to grapple with so much. It’s actually kind of freeing to just say like grief, you will win every time you’ll win every time, actually love it. I actually love not fighting grief. It’s like one of the few places where you can just let go, there’s no expectation, there’s no expectation of me and grief except to survive it. Like grief doesn’t end. You just, you live in a different world now. And that world unfolds endlessly before you and grief is part of it. So I feel like I had a choice. And that was to say okay, grief is something that I’m going to try to overcome every day. Or grief is just something that I am, it’s a natural part of me. I am living the human experience more fully and completely with my sorrow. What I trade it for my brother to come back. I would give anything to have my brother back. I would not trade who I am now, though. No, I don’t want to go back to who I was before new grief.
I didn’t think I don’t cry a whole lot about it. Like I, when he first passed away. I cried myself to sleep every night. I don’t cry a lot about it anymore. Because I really feel he’s free. And I’m really proud of him. Like I’m proud of how I’m proud of how I have the challenge that he had to face. The world around him did not understand what he was going through. People want to make addicts out to be bad people or they think that they have like control over this and when I think of what Matt faced I’m super proud of him. I’m like fiercely proud. I love him so much and I miss him so much and I feel so robbed, that I can’t help but think I just I just can’t help but over the past and wish that it was different. Everything that you see me do. My brother died. If you think I’m a great mom or a great writer or a great teacher, great wife or terrible at all those things or somewhere in between. My brother died.
Remember that when you see me like have compassion for me, like, hold me in your space, my brother died. That’s the most important thing about me actually. I mean, my brother. I said it wasn’t gonna cry. My brother changed my life. I mean, he, he made me such a better person. He made me more compassionate. He made me want to learn more. He made me; he makes me demand to try to understand what I can’t understand. I’m ever grateful. I feel terribly about what happened to him. But I’m ever grateful that I was, that I got to be part of it. I’m Jennie and thanks for listening to GOOD GRIEF. This episode of Good Grief is dedicated to the memory of my brother Matt and my father-in-law Joe.
GOOD GRIEF is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Hannah Boomershine, Giulia Hjort and Xorje Olivares. executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music and Sound Design are by Hannis Brown. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. If you want more GOOD GRIEF, subscribe to Lemonada Premium, only on Apple podcasts. This season of GOOD GRIEF is dedicated to those we’ve lost in the past year.