Guest contributor and future Sidley Austin trainee solicitor, Drew Burkey, writes a very beautiful and moving letter to his older brother Grant who took his own life in 2019. Thank you Drew for sharing this story and helping to raise awareness of suicide, particularly amongst young men.
It was 18th May 2019. Until now, your life’s been a steady stream of ups and downs. You capture the moment by taking it for all it has. And why wouldn’t you? Nothing scares you. You’re 19-years old and no challenge seems too great. So, take today in and enjoy every second of it. But have an early night. As of tomorrow, everything is going to change. Tomorrow you’ll read the following: “Go and conquer your world”. These are the last words Grant, your eldest brother, will write in his letter to you; the letter he’ll leave for you to read after you find out about his suicide. Whilst every inch of you will be itching to call, text, write to him – you can’t. Three years on, you’ll write this letter to yourself. This will be, if not closure, then at the very least a small measure of triumph. Because whilst you won’t feel like it now, the lessons you’ll learn over the following three years enable you to embrace Grant’s words – to conquer your world.
After spending the first days in a state of disbelief, you were angry. Angry at Grant. Angry at yourself. You ask yourself: Why me? Why did this happen to my family? Why couldn’t I save him? You analysed everything Grant did; everything you did; everything we did. What if you had asked this? What if you had stayed at home instead of going to university?
What if I were a better brother?
The truth is in that tempest of unanswerable questions, you’ll come to realise the lessons this will teach you lie in the silence that the emotional maelstrom will eventually leave behind. It is that moment of anger, that feeling of rejection, the ongoing memory that can divert you from the path that goes forward.
These feelings will invariably culminate in a choice: you can allow your loss to define who you are. Or you can define who you are. The first option is easy and seductive – do nothing. But, by choosing the latter, Grant’s passing will ignite in you an unextinguishable motivation to succeed, to push yourself rather than break you, and to live with resolve, not regret.
Now, I’ve been asked to write a letter to myself sharing this story. But in writing this, I realised it was more important to me to write to someone else. On 19th May 2019, I was not ready to tell Grant what I really had to say. But now, it would go something like this:
For every moment we shared on this little rock together, I was, and still am, proud to have you as my eldest brother. I am so grateful to have had you in my life.
After I lost you, I felt sorry for myself. I couldn’t see past the next minute. It was easier to be still than to walk forwards. I saw love as the irrational act that surrounded me in a veil of hurt. After losing you, I got on a plane and booked myself a hotel. I wanted to escape. On a warm evening, I wept on the balcony, staring in envy at the calmness of the sea that night. A white feather fell next to me. I looked at it, and in that moment of silence, I heard the promenade. A local band sings “Don’t you worry about a thing… cause I’ll be standing on the side”. In that moment, I knew that was the hug from my older brother I needed. The same one I got from you when I was three years old and hurt, when I was six and our parents were divorcing, and the same one that you gave me when I came out to our family and friends at seventeen. The hug that needs no words, the hug that takes the weight of the world from my shoulders.
It was in that moment I knew that I couldn’t run away from your death. Because, regardless of whether that moment was something symbolic I created for a moment of spiritual peace, the weight of the surrounding chaos alleviated. The veil of hurt was pierced.
The next day, I read a quote: “The boat doesn’t sink because of the water surrounding it. The boat sinks because of the water it lets in”. In grief, the waves crash high and hard – water inevitably makes its way on board. But I realised it’s about trying to steer a course through the rough tide rather than passively allowing it to sink you. You taught me those lessons when we grew up together – you taught me how to be a captain, rather than a passenger. You taught me to be grateful for what you have, and to work hard for what you don’t. You taught me that resilience does not mean repressing emotion and avoiding the lessons goodbyes can teach – but to strive to be better and appreciate both the journey and your companions. You taught me to reach high with ambition and helped me to realise that I could achieve things that I never thought I could.
The last couple of years have been tough. But your death taught me that irrespective of how bad things appear to be, there is more to be grateful for than there is to be sorry about. I am sorry I lost you, but I am more grateful to have had you.
Thank you for everything you taught me, during your time with us and after.
Thank you for being my big brother.
Love you always.