We Need a New Word for Survivor

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I recently received a text from my dead brother’s girlfriend. I still think of Dana as Junior’s girlfriend even though it’s been 15 years since he was killed. We’re not close anymore, but her daughter, who was conceived the week before he died, is my niece; we remain connected through the trauma we shared.


I was sitting in my office in Oakland when the text came through. I’m a writer and editor at a publishing company and was distractedly reading a proposal for a self-help book, trying not to think about a man I had freshly broken up with. “I was just thinking about you. You were on my heart,” she said. How nice, I thought, I needed to hear that. And then the next text: “I had a dream about Junior last night. It was so real.”

Immediately I’m taken back to being 16, the age I was when it happened. I know exactly why she’s reaching out to me and no one else despite the fact that we’re not close anymore. Who else would she tell? When he died she clung to me like a barnacle for the first weeks, sometimes even spending the night in my twin bed with me. I could barely sleep over the cries of her high-pitched heaving that she quietly apologized for in the morning. We share survivor’s guilt, and who else would understand that those words are inadequate, that we are not really survivors—that we survived nothing—but me?

My brother was shot in the head and left to bleed on a freeway exit in West Oakland a week after he was released from prison. He was just 19 and had spent the first year of his adult life behind bars. The blood on the sidewalk was still there a few days later when my family and I showed up to commemorate him with markers and spray paints. We wrote private letters and scriptures, we taped photos of him all over the cement wall that he’d fallen before. It didn’t take long for police cars to swarm us as if we were criminals, threatening to arrest us for vandalizing state property. This was a ceremony for our dead, a public grave that no one wanted to see.

A part of me will always exist inside that moment—the anger of it, the numbness of it. His death required great anger and great compassion to hold. So many systems had converged to kill him. Even through my anger at the unfairness of it, the violence of it, I knew in my heart that the black boy who did it was not totally at fault, and I knew that he would be next, and then there would be another and another, and that there would be innumerable dead black boys, and that I would not be the only sister who lost.

This knowing haunted me.


At fault were many moving parts that I would have to contain: it was the boy that pulled the trigger, yes, but it was also the schools that gave up on him, the penal system that imprisoned a child, a brutal masculinity code, the lie that gave him the belief that his blackness and his manhood were to be found on the streets of West Oakland, in the beautiful cars of drug dealers and pimps, at the bottom of a bottle of cognac. His murder remains unsolved. The trauma is also unsolved, but it is alive, its case file expressing itself invisibly, with frequency and normalcy, in the minds and bodies of those left behind.

15 years ago I made an unconscious agreement with myself: nothing would ever matter as much as his death. What I didn’t know then was that agreement included my own life. I didn’t have the luxury anymore to be sad about the trivial things of my teenage life—or my adult life, many years later. Breakup? Who cares. My brother is dead. A fight with a friend? Doesn’t matter. My brother is dead. It’s the nonnegotiable price I’ve had to pay for having been spared: I would pay by not allowing myself to feel anything but that particular sadness for the rest of my life. The agreement was to not be fully alive.


I texted Dana back, eagerly wanting some communication with my brother, even if the contact was through someone else’s dream. “Wow,” I said, believing totally in the authority of her dream. “What happened?” As if he’d been here and I’d missed it.


She proceeded to tell me that her daughter, Jewel, was with her. Jewel begged to visit with her dad. She met him, my brother, for the first time in the dream. They hugged and wouldn’t let each other go.

I hang onto every word, reading the message over and over again, letting the tears stream down my face. I grab a tissue from my bookshelf and am reminded I’m at work. The agreement takes over: nothing matters as much as this. Let them come in.


“Did he speak?” I ask. “He never speaks in my dreams.” I stare at my sacrosanct device, depending completely on the words that will come next.

She tells me that he asked: “Dana, where are you going?” and she responded, “I came to show you your teenage daughter.” Then he held his daughter, my niece.


This is what survivor guilt looks like.

It looks like a grown woman sobbing at her desk, struggling to attach worthiness to her life, a woman indebted to death. It looks like Dana sneaking off to text me in a corner of the IRS building where she works that has a strict no phone policy to text me urgently about the dream of her dead boyfriend, her teenage daughter’s dead father, my dead brother. In some primordial way, without any effort on my part, his death asks, and asks constantly: who are you to grow older year after year? Who are you to want? Who are you to achieve? Who are you to be alive?


I am indebted to him. Because I get to live and he didn’t.

What right do I have to have been feeling sad when my niece never had a father? Dana doesn’t have a partner. I don’t have a brother. It’s too much; all the loss. I forget myself for a moment and am overcome with the ubiquitous nature of this trauma, how it’s already been passed down, how my niece will pass it down, how I will.


I read and reread the texts at my desk believing maybe my brother is in them. I dare someone to come in. Nothing matters as much as this.

The dead haunt us.

I try to make meaning out of things. I try and give things purpose when they may very well be random. I tell myself that maybe my brother is trying to help me put the breakup/failure/loss/rejection/anxiety—whatever it may be—in perspective, reminding me that there are more important things for me to do, helping me see that I am bigger than the thing that worries me. Reminding me that I don’t matter. There is only room in here for one thing to matter. The personal, political thing that allows me to forget myself. It is in this forgetting that the trauma lives.


And then the negotiation with the agreement begins. I reject having to hold all this. I have the urge to be reckless, act out. I feel like I’m 16 again. Back then I took an X-Acto blade to my flesh. What damage can I do? I could drink until I black out, poison myself more subtly through bad relationships. I could do some damage, but when I’m finished, I’ll always remember that I have no right to any of my perceived problems. I don’t have the luxury to feel, to fully occupy my life. I gave that up when he died.


I really want things to matter. I want to matter. I dare someone to open the door to my office and witness the only black woman in the building crying at her desk because her brother was murdered 15 years ago. I want a witness.


I have fought impostor syndrome, feeling like a fraud in my career. This is also survivor guilt. Who am I to have a career? To think I can write a book? For many years I felt I wore the costume of a together person. I was hiding, very close to the surface, an extremely traumatized person. Everyone seemed happier than me and existed in a state of ease. I felt I was lurking in their world—white, middle class, educated, a sense of ease about it all. And I felt my mask always threatened to drip off and reveal the wounded monster that had to negotiate her worthiness daily. I hid with silence: please don’t ask me any real questions about my life. Don’t ask me how my holiday was. Don’t ask me about my family. And please don’t ask me about my book.

Please don’t open the door.

Now I open the door myself. I enjoy the look on peoples’ faces when I tell them what my book is about. With a straight face I say, “A memoir about my coming of age and my brother’s murder—a story about the aftermath and the cost of black death.” I watch their mouths form the word wow and their eyes squint in some combination of sympathy and awe.


I’m sick of hiding the trauma. I’m sick of not living because of survivor guilt. I want to feel everything, all the pain, even petty breakups, all the goodness, too. I want to talk about my brother’s death and the fact that not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. I want to tell people about my pain. I’m sick of hiding. I don’t want to be grateful for my life if it’s an apology. I want to be worthy of a life.

There are so many more teenagers than just my niece who do not have fathers. There are so many more women who don’t have partners, so many more women who don’t have brothers.


I often wonder how Oscar Grant’s, Freddie Gray’s, Eric Garner’s sister, daughter, partner, are doing—all the families. And all the unnamed ones like my brother, who died on the streets, not by police hands, but by the hands of a system that condones and supports black death. To me these deaths are no different. The origins are the same.


The word survivor is inadequate. Being a survivor means living a life informed by trauma. I survived nothing; I live it every day and see it in all things. We need a new word. We are the spared who carry the wounds around like babies we must protect. The wound feels as real as the person we lost. Never forgetting is certainly a gift: I have measureless levels of compassion and empathy. I get it. I’ll never need to be convinced that black lives matter. But these qualities are not valued; my gifts feel useless. Most useless of all is that the guilt threatens to strangle off my right to be a full participant in my own life. I need a new word. One that lets me live more, that unburdens me from the mere existence of the spared—the half-life. I am learning to tell my story. I am learning to take up space, in my career and in my own body. I am learning to feel. I want to be sure that as I honor the dead, I allow life. It is not just the dead boys who matter. All the lives in their wake need to be reminded how much they matter. Perhaps I’ve needed a reminder all these years that my own black life mattered. The agreement is not that we get to live, but that we must live.

Illustration by Jorge Martins

Melissa Valentine is a writer and editor based in Oakland, CA. Find her @iammelissav or www.melissavalentine.com.




To paraphrase the Holocaust “survivor” Eli Weisel, author of the iconic memoir “Night,” in his response to a woman who expressed her guilt at feeling sad and depressed over trivial things, as her suffering could never match Weisel’s, he essentially told her this...”we all have our own pain, which fills us to the brim. I do not give you permission to take on my pain. Yours is as real and legitimate as mine. Never feel guilt for it.”. By the way Melissa this is easily among the smartest, well crafted, devastating things you have ever written. Well done.