Grief. Everyone tells you how much it hurts, but one does not truly understand this until they have lost someone that they love. I can only speak to my own experience, but I can tell you it has been a rollercoaster of a learning experience and emotional journey.
My father and I recently began getting along. My childhood was spent mostly in fear of him, due to his addictions and his not so healthy relationship with my mother. I spent many nights staying up all night, getting yelled at, hearing my mom get yelled at, and feeling the need to protect her in case things got too bad. In recent years, my dad had some health scares and stopped drinking and smoking. There were still dry drunk episodes, but I was doing my best to call once in a while and get to know the sober him. I was finally beginning to see who he was before he crawled into that bottle so many years ago.
Monday June 30, 2014. Dad goes into the hospital for a routine hernia surgery. The outcome is normal, he is doing well, I am told. I feel awkward going to the hospital, as he is insisting he doesn’t want company and that he will be out in a few days.
Saturday July 5, 2014. Dad is still recovering from surgery and is still in the hospital. Something in my heart is telling me to go visit him, so I do. Matt and I drive down and see him in the hospital. The results of his abdominal x-ray come back while we are visiting and something isn’t right. There are air bubbles present. The surgeon comes in on a Saturday night for an emergency surgery to try and find the cause. It could be that the surgeon nicked his bladder during the surgery, we are told. A routine fix—nothing that should alarm us TOO much. My dad squeezes my hand and looks genuinely afraid for the first time in ages. This is the last time I will talk to my dad while he is “himself”. My mom, Matt and I sit in the waiting room for a few hours while this surgery is happening. Success! It wasn’t his bladder, but a perforated ulcer in his stomach. Doesn’t sound too bad and the surgeon was able to patch it up with some fat. Crisis averted. Matt and I say goodbye to my dad before heading back to Chicago the next morning.
Thursday July 10, 2014. I have been getting updates all week. I receive a call from my mother. At this point, we have already spoken multiple times that day—everything seemed stable and I was sitting down to a spaghetti dinner with a nice glass of red wine so I ignored the call. The voicemail from my mom was full of panic. “Hey um, Amanda…I need you to call me back. Your dad had a seizure and his heart stopped…they got him back but you need to call me right away”. Little do I know I will replay this voicemail for months to come until I force myself to delete it. I call back, call my supervisor to take the hotline, and Matt drives me to the hospital where my dad is unconscious. We spend a good portion of the night in the ICU where he began to exhibit signs of brain damage. It took 21 minutes of CPR to get him back once his heart stopped, which caused this damage to be irreversible. My uncle and cousin go to pick up my sister four hours away so that she can also say her final goodbyes.
Friday July 11, 2014. I saw my father die, gasping for air as his wife, children, in-laws, and a priest stood around him. We had to make this decision. My dad never wanted to live without being able to function. The “adults” in my family had to have a discussion about what to do and my mom brought out my dad’s living will. His wishes were clear. We had to let him go. A hernia surgery lead to us finding out about the perforated stomach ulcer that was leaking acid onto the rest of his vital organs for god knows how long. He was septic, no one told us the extent of the damage the ulcer caused. When he started hallucinating cats and talking to Honey Boo Boo on the TV, ICU staff told us this was “ICU syndrome” and laughed it off. I said my silent goodbyes early that morning. They brought a “bereavement tray” of cookies before he even passed away.
Everyone grieves differently. I’ve noticed how my family members grieve as the year passed. My mom has dealt with stress in the same way throughout the years, throwing herself into her work (I wonder where I get it?). But this time has been different, I’ve watched her struggle with guilt, sadness, and loneliness which has been heartbreaking. She began taking breaks from work in order to enjoy life more, so there have been positives that have come out of her grief. She has been incredible in that she has still done things for herself, sought help when she needed it (in many ways), and has still been able to live productively and happily. My sister has also handled things super well. She is very direct and straight-forward (her world is black and white). Seeing her switch between angry and sad has been hard to watch, but she has found healthy ways to cope and it seems as if she is “really” an adult now (at 24). Incredible the way I have seen her grow to handle life’s stress in such a healthy way. My extended family began by trying to support my mom through simply being present which I’m sure was helpful. There was an explosion and my mom told everyone to stop coming to her house every day, but things have gotten healthy again.
As for my own healing, I’ve had my moments, but I think I’ve dealt with things well. I mean, I cried randomly for quite a few months in public places and without feeling like I had any control over myself. That stopped after Christmas last year, but then I had another incident while driving back from my sister’s graduation in Quincy where I freaked out on everyone and sobbed silently in the corner of a booth at McDonald’s while picking at a salad, good thing I’ll never see those other patrons again. I think it was because my sister kept talking about my dad, it sounded like she forgave him, and I realized he wasn’t able to be there to see her graduate. I was exhausted from the weekend and everything came pouring out at once. The one year anniversary didn’t bother me much, surprisingly, but I think it’s because I was anticipating everything I could feel—after all, I am a planner. I was under-promising and over-delivering in terms of how I would handle the day. It’s weird to cry about things and not immediately know why you’re crying.
I intentionally not posted anything on social media about my dad, I haven’t visited his grave. Maybe I’ll do these things when I’m ready. For now, I’m not and I’m respecting my personal boundaries on this. As many other people have said, you can’t understand the heartache of losing a loved one until you actually do. Due to the feeling of a void in my chest, I figured a piece of your heart goes missing and can’t be replaced with anyone/anything else after a severe loss. Now I think I’m just lucky to have had someone to care about in such a way. I don’t think the piece of my heart is missing—I just think it had to switch positions in my chest. My dad will always have that piece.
Cheers to you, dad. This is my favorite picture of him from my parent’s wedding: