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How Losing My Dad Affected My Mental Health

Author’s note: This post includes details of my father’s hospital stay and death. It may be triggering to those who have lost a loved one.

When you have anxiety, most major life events come along with a “flare up,” especially if you’re unprepared. I remember vivid panic attacks around my college graduation, moving into my first apartment, job interviews and so on. But, this year, I’ve been dealing with a completely different kind of change — the loss of my dad.

I’ve never really suffered through grief before. I have a very small family, and a vast majority of my family members either passed away when I was young, or they were never a big part of my life in the first place. The only close family member I’ve lost was my uncle when I was 20. I loved him very much, and it was the first time I’d really grieved someone. But I moved on after a while, and I still hold the memories of him dear. I don’t think I had ever really felt that empty, all-encompassing grief you feel when someone close to you is gone. Until now.

It’s clear I wasn’t prepared to lose my dad — and, honestly, I’m not sure if you’re ever ready to lose a parent. One night I was getting a phone call that my dad had a heart attack, and 10 days later he was dead. It was sudden, quick and the worst 10 days of my life. Dad passed away on January 28, 2017 around 1 a.m. He was only 58 years old. It hasn’t even been four months, and I feel like it was a lifetime ago.

Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of tools to control, embrace and live alongside my anxiety. I’ve done meditation, mindfulness, breathing techniques, self-care and medication. I use a combination on a regular basis to live my best life. But, when I was faced with the death of my dad, I had nothing to help me.

Since losing my dad, I sometimes feel like I’ve taken years worth of therapy steps backwards. At the beginning of this year, I was actually even considering lowering my therapy appointments and starting to consider weaning myself off antidepressants. After my dad died, I not only doubled the amount of therapy I was doing, but added on a daily medication to my list. At face, I know this is OK — that living with anxiety is an adventure that ebbs and flows, and we will have bad and good moments, and that it isn’t something to necessarily “cure.” I understand that anyone else in my situation would probably be going through similar issues. I get it. I understand that the steps I’ve taken make sense. But it doesn’t ease the guilt I have over “losing” to my anxiety.

If anyone asks me in person, I will say differently, but I have not been well since Dad died. I remember my first appointment with my psychiatrist after Dad passed. He told me:

“I cannot prescribe a pill to cure grief.”

My heart sank at his words. It was only in that moment, just a week or so after Dad died, that I realized this was grief — this was something only I could resolve with myself, that this was not a disorder to work on or something I can medicate to alleviate — this was grief, it was real and it wasn’t going anywhere.

I did the research. I googled the stages of grief. I looked up what it can do to someone with outstanding mental health issues. I desperately wanted to find answers of what to expect, how long it lasts, how to fix it. All I found were continuations of what my doctor said — grief cannot be cured.

There are many layers to grief. Everyone grieves differently. I can only speak to my experience, but the combination of my existing anxiety with sudden and deep, deep grief, has made one hell of a whirlpool in my life.

I am sad. I am sad all the time. I am sad when I’m smiling, sad when I’m asleep, sad in my dreams, sad when I look to the future. The overwhelming sadness I feel has absolutely been uncomfortable, but I can live with the sadness. I know with time it will dull and move to the background of my daily life. Unfortunately for me and as is common with many people in these kinds of situations, I’ve also developed a layer of PTSD around my grief.

I do not envy anyone who has had to lose someone they love, but I will say there are days when I think I might envy someone who doesn’t have to watch their loved one die. I might envy someone who knew their loved one was sick and had time to say goodbye, plan for afterwards, get out everything they needed to say. Hell, I even envy anyone who’s loved one was conscious before they died. Dad never woke up after his heart attack. I never got to connect with him.

I think there is also some envy inside me of “normal” people that deal with grief. On my worst days, I imagine a more composed, rational, thoughtful person and how they might have handled my situation, how they would handle the fallout. It’s completely foreign to me. I watched my brother do it. I watched him talk to the doctors, get Mom settled financially after Dad died, help process the paperwork and procedures — then I watched him go back to his life states away with his wife and kids. I watched him handle Dad’s death with relative matter-of-fact-ness. All the while, I could physically feel parts of myself falling apart, breaking down, being lost.

Part of my journey with anxiety has been to accept who I am and love the parts of myself that my anxiety affects. I am a deeply sensitive, emotional person, and while I have learned many techniques to keep these emotions from controlling my life, I have also learned to embrace them and understand it isn’t always a negative — my ability for empathy and understanding is a positive in many ways. I’ve recognized I have this unique ability to connect emotionally with people in a way most people are too uncomfortable or unfamiliar with to do.

My grief has taken this part of me I was beginning to love and turned into a monster. A monster that has manifested itself as PTSD from the guilt and sheer terror I feel surrounding the death of my Dad.

Other than with my therapist and the family that was with me at Dad’s bedside, I haven’t discussed details with anyone, yet I replay them in my head constantly. It’s a daily battle to avoid triggers, and it’s incredibly exhausting. The PTSD rears its ugly head whenever something in the present brings me to the experience in the ICU or hospice. It becomes a literal out of body experience. I feel like it’s the day he died all over again. It only lasts a moment, but the impact on my mood can last days.

While Dad was in the ICU, there was a lot of beeping. Machines, rooms nearby, everything in there seemed to have a rhythm to it, and all of it incited my anxiety — I had no idea what the beeps, frantic or slow, meant. I heard them in my sleep for many, many days after Dad died.The ICU has a smell. It’s the smell of sick, the smell of sterile hospital, the smell of people, medicine, sweat, coffee – it’s a sick mixture that, while unique to the ICU, can be found briefly in moments. Sometimes simply someone’s body odor can make me pause. Sometimes a doctor’s office will smell too similar, or I get a whiff of iodine. I’m never prepared for it, and it always chokes me up.

Unconscious, comatose patients still breathe, and without intubation, they breathe loudly. When we decided to extubate Dad, no one thought he would live more than an hour or two. He lived for 36 hours afterwards. When he was moved to hospice, there were no more machines, no more beeping, no more sounds of doctors and nurses running around or patients nearby. It was a quiet and peaceful private room — except for Dad’s breathing. It was erratic and shallow. He grunted and snored. There were moments when he was quiet for too long, I would panic and look at him, then the noisy breaths would start again. It’s a noise I’ll never forget, waiting for them to stop. Sometimes at night if my fiancé snores a certain way, I feel like I’m there again. Waiting for Dad to die.

Then there’s the usual triggers — TV, movies, any media where the loss of a parent or a heart attack is a central theme. It’s like when you buy a blue car and suddenly see blue cars everywhere — heart attacks, coding, loss of a parent, they’re all very popular themes in media. And I never noticed them before.

The overwhelming feeling of guilt surrounds my sadness and grief. I feel guilty on so many levels. I feel guilty for being angry at Dad when he was first admitted. I feel guilty for being angry with Mom when she didn’t handle Dad’s hospital stay with grace. I feel guilty for questioning the doctors. I feel guilty for being angry with family members for leaving me alone to handle the fallout of Dad’s death. I feel guilty we didn’t have a “proper” funeral. I feel guilty that Dad was alone when he finally passed — I had left the hospital only two hours before. I feel guilty because I feel like Dad was alone and scared and confused, even though doctors reassure me he didn’t have the brain function to feel that way. I feel guilty when I let the sadness in and ignore my friends. I feel guilty when I cancel plans because I can’t summon the strength to be happy. I feel guilty when I think about my Mom, alone and starting a new chapter without me there. I feel guilty when I cry at a wedding and take any attention from the bride and her father. I feel guilty when I make people uncomfortable because I bring up a memory of Dad or mention him in passing. I feel guilty when I sleep all day and waste my time, rather than spending time with my fiancé. I feel guilty when I eat to calm my feelings. I feel guilty when I skip a workout because I’d rather sleep. I feel guilty when I slack off from work because I can’t focus. I feel guilty when I cry in the shower, rather than in front of my fiancé, because I don’t want to be a burden. I feel guilty all the time. For Dad. For the people around me. For myself. For things I cannot and could not control. And in my rational mind, I know how irrational my guilt is. I understand that. It doesn’t change it. I still feel it. Every day.

This has set me back in therapy. I view my anxiety and sensitivity and this new PTSD as weakness — as something that has fundamentally altered my ability to live my life with relative peace. I don’t know how to accept my grief. I don’t know how to nurture it, turn it into something I live with rather than run from. I don’t cry in front of my mother. I don’t talk about my Dad with anyone I don’t trust. I even tell myself “stop” when I begin thinking about him. I am fighting a daily battle within my own head to both accept and reject my grief.

I’m still in therapy, I’m still working on it. At the end of the day, I know my grief is here for a while. My sadness over losing my Dad is here to stay. There is a hole in my heart that no one else can fill, and I only hope that with time, I can learn to accept that emptiness, and move on from it, never forgetting, but holding it dear. This post is part of my process.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via sudok 1

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