How is grief like nesting dolls?

by Susan Casey, MSW, MFA


Four years ago, on a day made for lovers, a day when chocolate hearts nestled in red heart-shaped boxes are given out in abundance, my younger brother’s heart stopped beating. His wife and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter stood outside of ICU, hands pressed against the window, in a Hong Kong hospital, watching as Rocky slipped out of this world and into the next. Alone in a foreign country, they had no one but each other to cling onto.

The life-altering call came in at 3:30 in the afternoon, as I sat at my desk, preparing for a leadership conference. My brother had been sick for two days, and we were told he was withdrawing from Xanax, a medication he’d been taking for vertigo caused by a virus he caught in Cairo, Egypt. The doctor assured us that he would make a full recovery. I answered the call, hoping my brother was getting ready for discharge, and he’d be able to follow through on his promise to take his daughter to Disneyland.

My sister-in-law, wailed into the phone, “Brian (nickname Rocky) is gone, Sue. You have to be brave.”

“No, no,” I said. “The doctor said he’d make a full recovery.”

“You have to be brave,” she said. “I have to go and call my family.”

In those first four months, I stumbled around in a bubble of shock, eyes red and swollen. I’d nudge myself awake, pillow tear-soaked, asking myself the same question each morning, “Is it true? Did Rocky really die or did I dream it?”

Bravery was not part of my vocabulary. I didn’t understand the courage it would take to walk up the steep mountain of grief without a flashlight to guide my way.  As the minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years rolled on, I felt like a matryoshka doll (Russian nesting doll). The outer doll, giving way to another, and yet another wooden doll until finally the smallest wooden doll is revealed. Grief feels like that to me, the journey into the layers of the self.

Yes, I came to understand that grief takes courage. It took courage for me to sit alone in the silence, to feel my own battered heart thump against my chest. It took courage to feel its ache and sit in the fear of my agony, wondering: would I ever smile again? Would I feel any true depth of joy or care about whether or not the sun rose again? Would I find delight in walking over sand as it squished between my toes, or notice the beauty and wonder of blooming daffodils, a rainbow in the sky, or the sweet sensation of soft kisses on my lips? Would I ever tip my head to the maple tree in awe of the jewel-colored autumn leaves?

Inside the fear, I crept into my shadow side, curled up, knees against my chest, and shivered. It was cold, dark, and dank. The scent of rot wafted around me. Inside that space, I lived in the death of my life as I’d known it. Laughter became a foreign sound, a sound I couldn’t quite remember, like an ancient memory from childhood. As I grieved the loss of my brother, I was grieving the loss of me, too. Who was I now? What was I supposed to do with this stranger that carried sadness around like a 1000-ton weight?

And then there was Fear that slung an arm around my neck and walked beside me. Fear and I became close friends. I was terrified the death of my brother would trigger another stroke and kill my mother. Every time the phone rang, I worried I’d be the receptacle for more bad news. I didn’t want my other siblings to travel anywhere. Questions rattled around in my head that I didn’t have the answers to: How could I keep everyone safe? How do I support my parents so they will survive this? What will happen to my sister-in-law and niece?

I was unrecognizable to myself and to those around me. My husband asked me one day, “Are you ever going to take off that baseball hat?”

Baseball hat? I hadn’t noticed because I no longer looked at myself in the mirror. It was too terrifying to gaze into my own eyes, unsure of who that person was staring back. Like those nesting dolls, I had to walk through the layers of my shadow side to find my soul, my center, to remember the essence of who I was, to understand that I had the capacity to grieve so deeply because I loved with that same depth.

It took courage to peel the mask off and speak authentically about grief and heartache. Grief stripped away the illusions of what I thought mattered. It shrunk big problems into minuscule inconveniences. Grief softened the jagged edges of life, tilted the world, and shifted my perspective.

In the first couple of years, the sun was dimmer, the clouds, menacing, the air, biting and cold. Then miracles began showing up in the space Rocky left behind. I noticed the sun glowed more brightly than I had remembered. The clouds turned into white puffs of soft beauty. The air soothed my skin and carried the fragrance of lilacs.

My brother’s passing gave me the courage to crawl along the darkest places I would have feared to go and the courage to move toward the light, open my arms wide and say, yes to life itself. My brother expanded me and deepened my faith; his spirit pushed me to transform darkness into light because that’s who he was, and I have come to understand the most honorable way to honor Rocky’s life is to live the highest and grandest expression of my soul.

I love you brother; I love you with abandon.

Bio: When Susan Casey’s younger brother, Rocky, died unexpectedly in February 2014, she experienced firsthand the saving grace of putting pen to paper. Susan chronicled her grieving process on her blog,, and became a contributing writer to Open to Hope and The Grief Toolbox. She recently completed her book, titled Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief, which sprung from the overwhelming responses she received from her personal essays about grief. You can see her recent Podcast, Grief and Gratitude – Mining for Joy in the Deep River, on America Out Loud below. 

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Susan Casey

Susan Casey, MSW, MFA, is a writer, clinical social worker, and life transitions coach. Throughout the past 25 years, Susan has worked in hospice, in-patient, and home-based settings with teens and adults. In addition to her clinical work, she’s been committed to researching and teaching the therapeutic benefits of writing to clinical social workers. Her MFA thesis focused on how the art of writing can be applied as a therapeutic tool to facilitate emotional healing, motivate change, and inspire growth. To inform her thesis, Susan developed and facilitated a therapeutic writing program for adolescents with severe behavioral and emotional issues at the juvenile detention facility in Southern Maine. When Susan’s younger brother died unexpectedly in February 2014, she experienced firsthand the saving grace of putting pen to paper. Susan chronicled her grieving process on her blog,, and became a contributing writer to Open to Hope and The Grief Toolbox. She recently completed her book, titled Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief, which sprung from the overwhelming responses she received from her personal essays about grief. While writing her way through the loss of her brother, she completed a 35-hour training at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine and became a certified Bereavement Group Facilitator. She's been facilitating groups since September 2015.

2 thoughts on “How is grief like nesting dolls?”

  1. Sue, it was 7 years ago for my brother, and I got that call from my other brother. I was in the dentists’ chair. His son had found him. I wandered out of the office and was told I had to go tell my parents. That was the beginning of the world of grief for me. I have had very much the same feelings you describe. Love and peace to you.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Gray. I appreciate it. I, too, was the one who had to tell my parents. It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to do. Then I had to fly over to Asia for three weeks to get his body released for cremation and fly his ashes back to Bali where he lived with his wife and daughter. It’s difficult to describe the grieving process of surviving siblings because we have to be there for our parents and spouses and nieces and nephews and shelf our own grief for a while. It can be a lonely journey.

      My heart goes out to you for the loss of your brother. Love and light to you too.

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