I lost my little brother recently. We had a mutual admiration for each other and our life stories. They’re stories so painful, only family could see the humor in them. We shared our faith and our hidden fears. Better yet, we shared our future dreams of ministry and becoming entrepreneurs. 

When our family lost Vlad, we lost a piece of the Katynski puzzle. There is no way to place a Band-Aid over this wound. We can only expose it and let light shine into the darkness and bring healing. 

I never realized how much of a home this water-loving, blue-eyed, wonder-filled boy had made in my heart until he was gone. His infectious smile could win over the hardest of hearts. He always held space for those he loved. 

Inside of Vlad was strength, light, and laughter that lit up his eyes, even in his darkest moments. But sharing that light with others only to have it rejected was too much for Vlad to bear, so he built walls of protection for himself. 

With Vlad there was no room for a mask; he always exposed the truth. He didn’t allow relationships to remain on the surface with those he loved. And he had no capacity to fake what he was feeling. He wasn’t afraid to speak up and speak out when he felt strongly about something. For that, I am eternally grateful. 

But Vlad also had a way of making a room feel lighter. At his funeral, I smiled as I imagined him saying, “Stop crying! I’m home. I’m at peace. The wakeboarding up here is unreal, and Jesus is the coolest!” 

I came to know my baby brother as a close friend while he was in jail. Those 15-minute collect calls he made to me from behind bars challenged me more in my faith and my understanding of God’s goodness than any church service or conference ever has. He helped me experience the authenticity of Jesus through a whole new lens. 

Vlad showed me it was okay to cry out to God, to ask Him questions like, “Why? Where were You? How could this happen?” 

Vlad had many questions as he battled earthly addictions that led him down a difficult road. I believe these battles stemmed from his troubled upbringing. He was born and raised by a Russian heroin addict until the age of 8, then lived in a Russian orphanage for a couple of years before he came to America, where he faced unimaginable trauma prior to being adopted by my parents. 

When Vlad was 10, God brought him and another remarkable young Russian boy, Kola, into our family. My parents adopted and loved these boys as their sons, and my three sisters and I loved them as our brothers. But we were all unprepared for the depth of brokenness Vlad harbored within. 

I watched for years as my brother, whom I loved like blood, wrestled with battles from which he longed to be free. Drugs, alcohol, and mental illness took him down many dark roads. Local jails and rehab facilities became his regular place of residence, instead of a home with loved ones who longed for his return with open arms and hope-filled hearts. We prayed relentlessly that he would find healing for the wounds that he was using drugs to numb. 

Vlad was as deep as the ocean, but his brokenness was deeper. He fought the pain of his past with numbing agents that had no intention of letting him go. His wasn’t just a physical battle; it was spiritual torment. On occasion, Vlad would give me a glance into his pain. When he did, I listened, whether it was face to face or during those calls from jail. I was hopeful yet heartbroken as I listened to my little brother bare his soul. I felt the weight of his brokenness and the yearning for freedom he so desperately wanted.

Vlad was loving, hilarious, and goofy, the life and depth of the party. Yet he thought he was invincible. He believed he could take on the battles of this world in his own might, never once considering that his battles might overpower him and take with them pieces of the hearts of those who loved him most.

I know for certain Vlad accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and I believe that when he passed from this life, heaven gained a beautiful soul. However, I also know Vlad did not fully grasp the truth that Jesus could free him from his earthly battles. Neither did he surround himself with people who wanted God’s purpose for his life. My brother needed people who would help him fight the demons of addiction; instead, he surrounded himself with people who took him down. He tried to save himself, but by the end, he was too strung out and exhausted from the fight. 

As he was leaving our home one day, he told me, “I know I’ve put this whole family through hell.” I replied, “We’d do it all over again for you, Vlad.” Then we said our goodbyes—which always included an “I love you!”—and he walked out the door. I did not know that would be the last time I would see my brother or hear his voice this side of heaven. 

Three days before Christmas of 2018, 12 nanograms of fentanyl stole the life of my brother. He was 22. As I delicately picked up his urn, I was shocked by the unexpected weight of his ashes and the heavier loss of his absence. 

As his sister, I don’t want Vlad’s life to be in vain. I believe we can all learn from it. His life has inspired me to take a deeper look into my own life. It’s challenged me to allow people to help me in my times of weakness; to allow them the opportunity to help carry the weight of my burdens so I am not overcome by them. It’s challenged me to remove the people and things from my life that hurt me and replace them with life-giving people and activities that move me toward the plans God has for me. 

I pray Vlad’s story will challenge you to do the same. Maybe like Vlad, you are in a battle. I believe each of us have specific susceptibilities—some more than others. These struggles may be spiritual, genetic, or self-imposed. But no matter the source, God’s Word tells us how to fight. 

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out (Ephesians 6:13–18 MSG). 

We don’t get to choose the battles we face, but we can choose how we respond and who will help us through them. If we choose to fight with God by our side and surround ourselves with life-giving people, we can conquer any battle. 

Maybe you’re thinking it’s too late for you. I’m here to tell you, if there is still blood pumping through your veins, there’s hope! You can win any battle with Jesus. He is on your side and ready to go to war for you. He’s just waiting for you to take a step of faith toward Him, to ask for His help, and to hand Him your battles. 

As I grieve the loss of my brother, I look toward the certainty of a heavenly reunion with Vlad in our true home. In the meantime, I will remember him when I am on the waves, as they remind me of his love for the water and wakeboarding. I will see his reflection in the smile of our nephews, because “Uncle Glad” was always up for one last Nerf battle. I will celebrate him in prayer because he was always willing to receive them. And I will feel the nearness of his presence in those he loved.