Illustration by Spencer Olson

I Dated My Brother’s Girlfriend After He Died

Right and wrong seemed trivial in the face of my grief—till I realized my brother was angry with me

After Adam died, I started listening to dubstep. I think my grief registered in a way where the only viable option to make myself feel better was to slowly blow out my eardrums with Skrillex and Knife Party. His wasn’t the kind of stereotypical death you see on TV, where the whole family stands around the brave bald man in the hospital bed who manages to squeeze out a slurry of inspirational words before he passes. This was a devastatingly sudden death that uprooted our entire family. It was a benign tumor in his heart that did it, which he would have found perfectly ironic since malignant tumors are what people typically have to worry about.

Adam was a type of guy to pine over women — I once walked in on him in our apartment watching that episode of The Office where Jim confesses his love to Pam and she tells him to forget about it. It was an episode he already had seen plenty of times, but clearly he needed to watch it again to help him understand the pain he felt on account of his unrequited affection for Lisa. He liked Lisa — really liked her — and told our mom about her and wanted them to meet her. But with the multitude of times she blew him off or just didn’t return his phone calls, it seemed clear that Lisa liked Adam mostly as a friend. I saw her as nothing more than my brother’s one-who-would-almost-certainly-get-away. They spent only a short time together — it couldn’t have been more than three months, but he thought she was perfect.

I tried to talk him out of this relationship during our daily outings to the bodega down the street from our Brooklyn apartment, but my concerns were met with skepticism. I was 24, and believed I had the necessary nuggets of wisdom available to help my brother. He was 20, and wanted to believe she could love him back.

Then on July 5, 2012, he vanished. As if his soul just picked up and left his body. I called her that morning to tell her what had happened. She didn’t know who I was at first, but I said I was Adam’s brother and that he had died. I wish she hadn’t cried as much as she did or accused me of lying, but that was the reaction she had. All that mattered anyway was that he was gone.

I remember drifting in and out of consciousness on the way home from Brooklyn to my parents’ house in Connecticut. My dad, stone-faced and strong, picked me up and drove us back to my childhood home. About an hour into the car ride, Lisa called — I think she was drunk. She asked me if it was all right for her to come to Connecticut and see my family; I said yes and fell asleep.

Life after someone close to you dies is very much like what you see on TV: The protagonist sits in bed for weeks; he survives on a diet of liquor; he looks at his phone to see who’s calling and turns it off. That’s something the media got right. I was immovable. The first time I moved was when Lisa came to my house to visit.

She brought a box of wine, a delicacy that she and my brother would often tackle together. I told her that she had brought the best possible thing to cheer me up. Lisa and I sat on the couch that Adam and I used to lounge on and showed me pictures of him that I had never seen before — candid photographs of him and his friends on the streets of Brooklyn, pictures of him cooking. She went upstairs to get more wine and I was left alone with my thoughts. Soon, I noticed Lisa hadn’t come back yet. I went into the kitchen to look for her and found her silently bawling on the floor. I knelt next to her and wrapped my arms around her body, desperately hoping she could feel my brother in me. I kissed her on the mouth, and she kissed me back.

“Is this why you wanted me to spend the night?” She asked.

“No, but I hope you stay.”

She did.

Let me back up. I knew that what I was doing was inherently wrong, but when you’re in that much pain the game changes. I never would have tried to make a move on Lisa had Adam been alive, but I was a goddamn mess and couldn’t stop feeling this sense of duty to Adam. Lisa was an ongoing connection to Adam; a way to keep him alive.

It was a fucked-up basis for a relationship, but you’re left with this grandiose sense of entitlement when you’re that sad. You feel completely untouchable; the worst thing in life has already happened, so everything else is small potatoes.

So, she and I started seeing each other. I told her I loved her after a few weeks, and she told me the same thing back. I felt her guilt about ditching Adam through her attention to me — she never left my side, and when we were apart, she stayed in close contact with me by way of constant texting and phone calls.

We went out as a couple and I made it my business to make myself a metaphorical third wheel. She was dating Adam with Jeremy on the side. I put myself in the back seat as we embarked on adventures that I made damn sure my little brother would have loved: culinary outings in which we’d scour the city for the finest dumplings and BBQ, dark clubs with endless drinks, and dubstep shows. I became a knockoff version of my own brother.

Then I saw his ghost.

Lisa and I were in bed together when I saw my door open. I sat up, expecting to see my dad or mom, but instead I watched my door close on its own. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, either — only a week before, I had come out of the shower and come to find that the door to my room was closed. I took that as a sign that I had to end things with Lisa immediately. I felt Adam’s presence and knew he was angry.

Lisa and I were together two months, maybe three, and those last few weeks were hell for her. Everything I felt for Lisa vanished quite literally overnight, and I began treating her like a burden. I was cold, rude and angry. I denied her sex; I made excuses to not see her; I didn’t return her texts. I was awful. The shock of Adam’s death was receding, leaving blinding apathy in its wake. I knew that everything I could ever love — or that could ever love me — was doomed to destruction by the hands of the cruel universe. I threw this dark ball of despair at Lisa with full strength.

She was extremely smart, so it quickly became apparent to her what was going on. Lisa knew how I was feeling and found the strength not to fight it. I believed her when she said she loved me, making it even more confusing that she let us fall apart. The closing days of our relationship were the opposite of what Adam would have ever wanted with her — it was a sham without even a scrap of romance — and I was the person who undid everything.

Our final goodbye was devastatingly anticlimactic; she called me to ask if I would see her off at Penn Station for her trip back to Connecticut to live with her parents. I opted out of the phone call to text her a weak excuse. I think I said I had a job interview in the morning. She didn’t respond, and that was the last time we spoke for months.

She called me up to say hello on the one-year anniversary of his death. I had heard from friends that she was doing well — I think she started running marathons, which is a common theme with friends of mine trying to better themselves. She asked me how I was doing and told me she had another picture of Adam to send me. She asked for my address, sounding like an aunt inquiring for an address to send a birthday card. I told her where I was living, and we made the effort to engage in some light small talk. The passion in her voice was gone and mine was equally hollow, leaving both of us conclude that this would probably be the very last time we’d speak. Together we had experienced the time period after someone dies where all logic and moral code goes out the window and bursts into flames, and that moment was over.

After hanging up, I tried to think about if I had learned something from pursuing my dead brother’s beloved, but I still can’t pin anything down.