Hi, I’m Erin Gallagher, Interim Executive Director of This is My Brave, and we’re so excited to present this season of Our Turn to Talk, a podcast series featuring the voices of young people who are passionate about having authentic conversations about mental health. At This Is My Brave, we believe that Storytelling Saves Lives. We hope that this podcast inspires you to Be Brave with us and to start authentic conversations of your own about mental health.
Aliyah: (31:10) So I have a tattoo of a lightSaber on my wrist. That tattoo was for my brother, Elijah.
He was obsessed with Star Wars and Marvel movies. But Star Wars was definitely a exception for him because he wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg and directing was something that he always dreamed of doing.
Aliyah: There was this thing in Star Wars that said no one is ever truly gone. And I truly believe that no one ever is truly gone. And I just want that reminder every day that even though it seems like he's not here, he's still here.
Anastasia: That’s Aliyah Green. She’s 20, and lives in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Anastasia: A few years ago, Aliyah’s younger brother died suddenly.
Anastasia: Today we’ll hear from Aliyah as she brings us through the trauma of losing her 14 year old brother. We’ll talk about grief…what it means…how it changes you. How it makes you question so many things…
Aliyah: (19:39) In life sometimes I don't feel like I know where I'm going after I lost my brother, I never knew what I was doing after. I was like, I don't get the meaning of life at all. Why am I still here? And that was always my question. Why am I still here? And I didn’t see the point to live.
Anastasia: This is Our Turn to Talk. A place for young people to talk about mental health… and how we’re the generation to finally put our wellbeing first.
I’m Anastasia Vlasova, I’m 19, and a freshman at NYU.
[fade in clapping from this is my brave show]
ALIYAH’S SPEECH: Hi everyone I’m Aliyah Green, though I’m going to share a poem with you today, I can promise you my journey with depression was anything but poetic. It was mostly sleepless nights,
Anastasia: That’s Aliyah speaking at the This Is My Brave teen show in 2019
ALIYAH’S SPEECH: Pretending I’m mentally stable to avoid the relentless question: are you okay? Well I’m not okay, but I’m brave….Today I’ll be sharing a piece with you called ”Little Do you Know,” and this is my Brave….
Anastasia: The hardest moments in life are often the ones that really change us…to the core. And not to sugarcoat horrible tragedies or any of the excruciating things we go through as humans, but I think many of us know how much growth can come from hardship. We’ve heard so many of these really inspiring stories from young people on this podcast. They’ve been through life’s toughest moments and, in one way or another, gotten through them.
For Aliyah, this moment was the passing of her younger brother, Elijah.
Aliyah: (35:36) it was definitely the worst moment of my life for sure
Aliyah: (33:36) one day my mom texts me while I'm at school and I'm about to leave school. She was like, um, I'm taking Elijah to the hospital. I was like, oh, well, um, maybe she, well she's taking to urgent care or something and something small happened cuz she does that too.
(33:54) Even like we're regularly sick sometimes. So I didn't think nothing of it. But when I came home, all I saw was ambulance, like materials all over the ground. And I was like freaking out having anxiety. So I was like, I don't know wha happened that’s just weird. And I got a call from my mom mom saying, … to go, um, visit him. And I think she said visit, but she didn't really wanna tell she sound dull when she said it, but she was at the hospital already and I knew something was wrong.
Aliyah: (34:52)I didn't think he passed. I was like, maybe
he had a disease or something that he was like diagnosed with. And that was my first thought because everyone was so quiet and looking at each other, like something bad was happening. And I was like, something's really, really up. Cuz everyone's hugging and everyone looks like lost for words. So my mom mom, and this doctor like take me into the room and told me, something happened. We couldn't resuscitate him and he's gone.
Aliyah: I just remember like screaming his name the whole time. And I didn't know what to think of. It all felt like a dream.
Aliyah: (35:43) they took me to, um, see him the hospital bed, which I said, as they said was one of the reasons why I couldn't sleep for a while because I could like still remember like seeing the tube in his mouth and his eyes like so puffy and his like long eyelashes, just like resting on his face and me touching his fingers.
Aliyah: (36:02) And it felt like he just became a mannequin like instantly. And then all I could scream was Elijah. You were loved Elijah. You were loved because all these kids bullied him at school and I never got to really tell him that lot. [cries]
Aliyah: (36:26) They took me in another room to go see my mom. And she was just gone to me too. Cuz her eyes. She was just staring like at the wall was like, Aliyah, we lost him. And we lost my aunt, a couple years ago. And that was the first time I ever experienced death in my life. And um, I felt my mom went through a depression with um losing my aunt. But um losing my brother was definitely something extreme. And I thought, I was like I know we're never gonna be the same again. But I was like, I don't think my mom is going to be mentally there for me at all. Like I don’t know what to do.
Anastasia: Aliyah and her family are Christian. But she said after this horrible loss, her sense of faith was shaken.
Aliyah: (37:11) And we definitely still value God and we have godly values. But um, it's definitely hard to keep that for a while because like, why would you do this? Why would you take someone so young? He has such a future. And if you really exist, why would you do something like this? It makes no sense.
And like, all I can remember is like people telling me, you have to go back to church, you have to come visit and stuff and all. And when I was like went, um, old church members, all I can remember is being mad for months in church and folding my arms and it'd be like, I don't get any of this anymore and I don't wanna be here.
And I definitely lost my Christian faith for a bit, but I definitely gained it back slowly in the process cuz um, that's actually been my healing process, keeping tight to, um, my relationship with God. But um, I was really mad for a lot and that's how I felt for a long time.
Anastasia: Dealing with such a loss at any time in life is hard. But especially at such a young age the impact can be incredibly difficult.
Dr. Heidi Horsley : (00:00) Grief. …It feels like depression, but you don't have a sense of worthlessness and you have a sense of searching for that person that has died.
Anastasia: Dr. Heidi Horsley is a psychologist and professor at Columbia University.
Dr. Heidi Horsley: You also have moments where you can take breaks from your grief and and feel better again. So there are moments you will visit the grief and then you'll, you'll move away from the grief.
Anastasia: She’s also a grief expert, with a specific focus on grieving the loss of a sibling in young people. Dr Horsley is an expert on this because she’s studied it for more than 20 years. But she’s also lived it.
Dr. Heidi Horsley : When I was 20 years old, my 17 year old brother and cousin died together…very suddenly and very traumatically. And that event turned my world upside down…And my friends couldn't relate. You know, none of my friends had ever had a brother or a sister die, ever. So I felt very much alone often.
Anastasia: Just like it did for Aliyah, the death of Dr. Horsley’s brother made her question everything about life, which is really common when young people lose a sibling.
Dr. Heidi Horsley : (18:08) Most of us will spend 80 to 100% of our lifetimes with our siblings on this earth. We are travelers in life together… I didn't know who I was on the earth without Scott. I didn’t know how I was going to go on. Was I ever gonna find hope again, happiness? … …I think a sibling death changes you because… It puts your own mortality into question.
People don't get it. When you've had a sibling die, people say to you, how are your parents doing? And they also say to you, you've gotta be strong for your parents. We as siblings, what we hear is that our loss isn't …that significant. We need to hide our loss.
Anastasia: Along with the importance of being acknowledged and validated, Dr. Horsley emphasized a few really powerful coping strategies.
Dr. Heidi Horsley: (07:11) The research shows that after losses, that the things that help the most are peer support. … Just trying to find other people that have had a death that's similar is important because …We realize, Hey, wait a minute. Other siblings are feeling the same way after a death.
Anastasia: And she said while talk therapy is always helpful, other types of body-based therapies are especially useful. Because we now know that trauma can actually be stored in our bodies…our muscles and tissues… and can lead to physical pain.
Dr. Heidi Horsley: (08:14) We need to find … places where we can move our bodies and get this grief out. And you know you can do a lot of different things. Yoga, walking… running, going to the gym, massage, acupuncture. … so that you can move the grief through your body because it can get stuck.
Dr. Heidi Horsley : (22:23) …You don't get over your brother or sister, you learn to live without them. And you know, while we can't have them here, the best we still can continue those relationships in new and different ways. And it is called continuing bonds.
Anastasia: Continuing bonds might include things like talking to the deceased sibling out loud or through writing, maintaining rituals or activities that they did together before they died, keeping photos around, or taking a trip they always wanted to take.
Dr. Horsley also said that in terms of healing, it’s also extremely important to find a sense of life purpose after the loss.
Dr. Heidi Horsley: There was a quote from Nietzsche that said he who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how. If you have a reason to be here, that every day is not as hard. …and there is hope again, even though sometimes it doesn't feel like it.
Anastasia: Before she found some coping strategies to deal with her brother’s death, Aliyah spent a while in darkness
Aliyah: (22:47) I really didn't know anything about mental illness, like I said I was very uneducated. Cuz it was always stereotyped in like, um, TV shows and stuff. It's like, oh it's just emo goth kids. They always say they're depressed and stuff. And I knew that depression was a thing because I had a friend in middle school that was self-harming and I didn't understand why she did that and stuff and I would try to help her but it was just hard. But I couldn't understand it. But when I lost my brother, I was like, wow, this is how it feels. It feels like having a dark cloud over you 24/ 7. It was tough cuz I felt like I was trapped in my own mind as like, no matter what I do, go to sleep or stay up, nothing's ever gonna work for me. And I don't know how to control this.
(07:01) Everyone treats mental illness as it's like a person that needs to be in a insane asylum. Or like I said, like just wears dark clothing, like goth kids, but it's definitely more than that. And I feel like growing up, you definitely don't learn that in school. I know my health class has definitely tried last year to do that. But if I see a celebrity that I love actually say that I would never think that of them just because who they are. But yet again, I was like, here I am in my daily life. No one knows who I am when I'm alone at home and I'm upset or depressed and no one would assume that about me. I think one interview that shocked me was when I watched Dwayne the rock Johnson say yes, I went through a massive depression when I was that age. And I would never know that cuz he's like the rock. He's always smiling. He's like the most genuine celebrity like I've ever seen. And to see this big, tough man with a huge heart to say, yes, it's real. Even people like me go through it can inspire other kids. Just like me to say then yes, I have it too.
… if they're brave enough to do that to everybody in the world they're fan based or million followers. Why can't I do that to my family or my friends or my small community?
Anastasia: Eventually, Aliyah did find beautiful ways to cope with her mental health and find peace again by sharing with her community. We’ll get into that after a quick break.
EG: Hi, Erin Gallagher from This Is My Brave again.
Whenever I meet young people who are sharing their stories, I feel even more empowered to do the work that I do.
If this inspires you, too, I want to tell you how you can get involved with us at This is My Brave.
Are you a college student? Our Brave Ambassador program is a student-led movement to create a safe space for yourself and your peers to talk about mental health and to break down barriers on your campus.
Are teens, if you’re feeling like this is your turn to talk, check out our website for opportunities to share your story… including how to participate in our next National Teen Show: Go to Thisismybrave.org for more information.
[fade in Little Do You Know poem]
Aliyah [LIVE]: Many of you probably would never assume this about me, but I suffer from depression. Yes, sometimes I tend to carry a smile so bright, that I almost seem unbreakable but behind that smile is a girl trying to make peace with her broken pieces…[fade down]
Anastasia: This is Aliyah’s poem, Little Do You Know, which she performed at the This is My Brave High School show last year.
Aliyah [LIVE]: [fade up] But it’s all just a show…my favorite thing to do in the world is acting…[fade down]
Anastasia: Poetry and public speaking are both coping strategies Aliyah developed after her loss.
Aliyah [LIVE] [fade up poem] Today I found my dream come true, but not in the way I planned. In the theater, I’ve taken on numerous roles, but none compared to the one I played every day…[fade down]
Aliyah: When I’m up on stage or I'm up in front of my school speaking, I feel like that's the area where I know I'm doing something right. Like no one can tell me that I don't belong here. And that this is my reason for living. It's almost like I found my purpose….It gives me confidence. Speaking is almost like the self love I give to myself almost.
Aliyah [LIVE] [fade up poem] …Little do they know I’m a girl that can feel the weight of sticky notes written with hurtful words on her back. Little do they know, those notes created long lasting insecurities. So until this day, I try to make up for what I lack…[fade down]
Anastasia: Having this outlet allowed her to process and feel her pain and her emotions, and it also gave her a sense of purpose at a time when she was questioning everything about life.
Aliyah: (12:46) The first time I really found that outlet was when I was like maybe eight or nine…I just got bullied a lot …I was seen as overweight and ugly and people would just put sticky notes on my back and stuff and like write mean stuff. I just never knew like how to tell people to stop. And even when I tried to do they wouldn't,
Aliyah [LIVE] [fade up poem] …And because you’ll never know what I feel, you think my depression isn’t real. Just like you think racism isn’t real because you never experienced it…[fade down]
MUSIC CUE/SCENE CHANGE
Aliyah: When I got to freshman year, I went to join clubs and everything went to be part and stuff, …and I saw this poster in the hallway and it was like, um, poetry or um, essays. And then it was like speech contests. So…I asked my one teacher that I was actually kind of getting comfortable with that year. He was like the one that actually got me like engaged with speaking in a way. When I coached with him, I became a stronger speaker…
So I did the contest.
Aliyah [LIVE] [fade up speech] …Social injustice, oh must this be brought up now, I salute while everyone sits in shock and wows while a football player kneels and bows, because this is not the land of the brave, maybe for you, but not for me…[fade down]
Aliyah: (18:18) when I presented I thought I was gonna pass out, I was like, I'm not gonna remember anything that I wrote. …I was like this is so stupid. And I was really considering to walk off and run out of my school's gym. But um, every time I hold that mic, I'm just like shaking…and I feel like nerves rushing and I feel really, really hot overheated and I'm sweating. But once I start speaking and I take a moment, it's like, I'm not there anymore. It feels like someone else is there just taking over. So that's the only way I can describe it. It just happens.
Aliyah [LIVE] [fade up speech]...I see humans, but no humanity, its insanity. I turn on the TV and see many people shot for looking like me, because they were black. It’s whack and a shame, how their names will be a hashtag for a week. Then we got back to the same old routine. We don’t speak…[fade down]
Aliyah: I stood up and talked about and talked about what was going on in the world, inequality, um, racism, I experienced, How my friends were being discriminated against…That was my breakout story.
Aliyah [LIVE] [fade up speech]... I may only be 15 and I have so much to learn, but you’re mistaken if you think I’m going to sit back and let our world crash and burn…. [fade down]
Aliyah: Me doing my school speech contest was a huge deal for me. Like coming out to who I was, letting people know this is something I can do me finally sharing my voice that people thought I never had or I never thought I had…
Anastasia: So after everything you’ve been through with the horrible loss of your brother, your mental health journey and your transformation through public speaking, what advice would you give to other young people going through loss?
Aliyah: (01:09:36) I definitely believe that strongly storytelling does save lives, whether that's through song, whether that's through acting, whether that's through dance, just to know that you're not alone in this world and what you're feeling, … If someone says, I feel this way too, let's talk about it. It's gives them a community. It gives them a person to talk to or look up to and gives them a will to keep living, knowing that a person like me is still finding a way to keep surviving every day and has the willpower to find a way to find their happiness.
Anastasia: Thank you all for tuning in to this episode of Our Turn to Talk. And thanks so much to Aliyah Green for her bravery in sharing her story with us. If you or someone you know is grieving the loss of a sibling, check out the Compassionate Friends. It’s a national organization with over a million members for those who have lost children, brothers or sisters with resources like online chat rooms, in person conferences, and local support groups.
Anastasia: Next week, we’ll talk to another brave teen, a member of the Wompanoag tribe who was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident at 14. He’s had anxiety attacks ever since, but he tells us how he’s tapped into his native lore to manage them.
MADARRIUS: Is using fire manipulation to heal somebody? You can feel it, you can smell the fire, you can feel the bass of the drums. You just show up, have good spirits and leave in better spirits. got a story though, it's a native American story.
Anastasia: If you’re a young person, we’d love to hear from you. What’s your story? You can go to ourturntotalk.com to share.
Ok, so maybe you're not ready to share your story, but maybe you have a question for us. We will be answering your questions in an upcoming Our Turn to Talk episode. No filters, no shame here. Submit your question on our website ourturntotalk.com
Our Turn to Talk is a production of Principle Pictures. We believe in the power and impact of storytelling through podcasts and films to build empathy and inspire change. Season One is a partnership with This is My Brave, an organization using performing arts to fight the stigma around mental health challenges and addiction. I’ve been very proud to intern there for the past two years. A very special thanks to Executive Director Erin Gallagher and Program Manager Katie Grana. Check out This Is My Brave at thisismybrave.org.
This episode of Our Turn to Talk was produced and edited by Megan Botel. Mixing by Mitch Hanley.
Beth Murphy and Jennifer Marshall are our Executive Producers. Additional support in the field and in the studio from Patrice Howard, Hannah McEachern, Ed Kashi and Ben Kolak.
Support for Our Turn to Talk is provided by The Hollister Confidence FUND, The Hershey Company, Rose-Marie van Otterloo and the Risa Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Washington.
I’m Anastasia Vlasova and I’m so excited to be on this journey with you. And don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.