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The Unexpected Impacts of Grief

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It was 8:45 a.m., only 12 hours until she and my stepfather were to return home from their week-long vacation in Canada. Only, my mother had different news when she called me that morning on May 15th, 2016.

My stepfather had a heart attack, and he did not make it.

He was 53 years old. This past September would have been my mother and stepfather’s 3-year wedding anniversary, not counting the 10 years of them being together as a couple.

All I remember was asking, “What? What happened? What did you just say?”

I paced around the house for about an hour or so after hanging up with my mother, trying to figure out what was going on. I was home alone. The more pictures I saw of my stepfather, the more my anger escalated. I threw all of the refrigerator magnets across the room and punched the dining room table.

I know that many people don’t discuss grief, but my stepfather was more than a stepfather to me — he was the dad I never had.

My brother-in-law and one of his friends said to me days after his passing that he had always spoken of me like he did his own biological children. Worried. Maybe disappointment with certain life choices. But, at the end of the day, he was always proud.

I immediately went to therapy the week of his passing. I had gone before, but this time I knew it would be different. More painful.

Within minutes, my therapist was guiding me through the process of grief and the stages I was experiencing and ones that might possibly arrive — denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. It made sense, looking back on it now. For the first week, I slept for 10 to 12 hours, sometimes tossing back over, not wanting to deal with anything or anyone. I had a difficult time showing any sign of remorse because I didn’t want to worry my mother (I still don’t). And I had a difficult time doing what I love — writing — and ended up losing two jobs because of my lack of interest and flat-out not caring.

It was a sad time. In fact, the rest of the summer of 2016 ended up being one of the most painful and scariest times ever. To be honest, every time I thought “It can’t get any worse,” it did.

I think when someone like myself loses someone close to them, especially unexpectedly as my loved ones and I did with my stepfather, we tend to find comfort in things we might not have imagined.

The following weeks after my stepfather’s passing, I would force myself to go out with my friends, sometimes going to bars and clubs, or a kickback at someone’s house. I hated it, but felt more sad by staying home. The irony was that I felt even worse going out, especially one night when I drank too much and realized the time — it was 2 am. and I was terrified because my stepfather was an early bird and, in my mind, he would turn the corner at any minute like he always did in those hours. He always went to bed early (something we used to tease him about), therefore, he woke up even earlier. I started working out to burn off the alcohol, but seeing pictures of him and all of the sympathy cards and flowers made me realize he was already long gone. I snapped and ended up hitting and punching the speedometer screen of the workout machine. That scared the family cat away and woke up my mother. She saw the empty booze bottle on the counter and could smell the alcohol as we hugged. She was not angry, but just wanted me to come to bed.

That was, what I would refer to as: my first meltdown. It was only a few weeks later that I decided to go out to a friend’s going away party at the club. For two weeks, I had been running a fever with a head cold. It beats me why I decided to go — I guess to be out of the house. Without even thinking, I took some medication before leaving my house on the little amount of food I consumed due to stress and possibly depression. Long story short, I got really shit-faced and blacked out for most of the night.

But since the night had started off like any other, I thought I was just another 20-something-year-old who wanted to hang out and drink with some friends — until the new reality sunk in. That following Monday and Tuesday was another funeral I was supposed to attend. Just the day after my stepfather’s funeral, one of my friend’s little sisters suddenly passed. She was only 12. Although I only met her twice, they were two of the fondest memories of bonding with someone. In fact, it will forever be an honor to have been given the opportunity to meet her.

I believe that is why I drunkenly texted, called and snapchatted a friend of mine. Well, a boy — someone I reconnected with on my birthday just two weeks before my stepfather’s passing. To be honest, it was what sort of ended our friendship; something I beat myself over and to be honest, still do. The night was not completely over either because, by the time I got home, I was mortified for being that drunk girl and calling a guy.

I had another meltdown when I saw my stepfather’s truck in the driveway and burst into tears. The alcohol was almost forcing me to relive everything from where I was the day I got the phone call from my mom to starting up his truck and running the engine so the battery would not go out. My stepfather always freaked out about the condition of it, even if there was a full tank of gas. What got to me more in that moment as I was hugging the truck, was the reality of starting it up just hours before leaving to go to the club and seeing snack crumbs on the floor. Jeff was always eating, with no more than an hour without food. It was overwhelming to me.

I cried more in the shower, ashamed of losing my shit. The next morning, I woke up with the worst hangover and my period. I was sick to my stomach. My mom thought it was a bit amusing.

It was humiliating when some family stopped by later that day, including my stepfather’s two children. My mom announced to everyone that I was hungover. They thought it was funny. I did not, with my head hanging over the toilet most of the morning.

For the longest time, my mantra was “Train wreck!” Especially the last time I went out to the bar and came home the next morning to not only throw up, but ended up crying as soon as my mother came in and asked if I was OK. I told her I was not and just wanted the year to end. I ended up staying in for the rest of my Friday and Saturday nights — or, if I did go out, I would always checkout sooner to come home.

Then on Father’s Day, on my way home with my mother from a luncheon, I started crying and venting to her as she drove. I was very drunk, which made me more vulnerable, considering it was the first holiday without him. Everything hit me even harder as I sat in the truck and made the decision to take one of his work shirts into the house. I fell asleep with it on the floor that night, still crying and wondering when the hell the roller-coaster of emotions would end. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I punched the floor after waking up from my nap, only finding my stepdad’s work shirt next to me.

In other words, it was a shitty day. And a shitty summer. And a shitty year.

But, perhaps, my meltdowns have been more “good” than “bad.”

Maybe that is the wonders of alcohol — a person just has no shame at some point because on a day such as Father’s Day, it was the first time I truly wept in front of my mother, something I dreaded and withheld since his passing. Drunk me was blunt and apologized to my mother about how I wanted to be strong for her because I could not imagine what it’s like to lose a significant other.

It took a few grief counseling sessions for me to realize that grief and alcohol commonly go hand-in-hand when we lose someone close. As someone who grew up with an alcoholic, you can imagine my anxiety and fear when I felt like going out to the bars and clubs in the weeks following my stepfather’s passing.

But I can now say, after months of talking about this in grief counseling, that both myself and others affected sort of had a “pass” to just grieve. And for me, it was going out to feel “normal” and like a “20-something-year-old” that forced me to be honest with not just others, but myself. I had to admit I was hurt by a lot, including events after both my stepfather’s and friends sister’s passing. Both of their one-year anniversaries will be here this upcoming summer. I do not know what to expect, but have been fortunate to have some coping tools whenever I feel a moment of sadness.

No matter what grade or age one is, I think losing a parent is one of the hardest things to deal with. My stepfather watched me grow up, entering my life when I was 12 years old. He was there during my brightest and darkest moments, especially when it came to college, stressing out over exams or the yearning to just graduate.

I always heard things will get better and for the longest time I had difficultly believing that. I have learned in these most recent months to never take life for granted, as cliché as that sounds. And never take anything “lightly,” because you should tell people how you feel. Tell them if they make you happy, angry or sad. Just tell them because you truly never know if that is the last time you will see or hear from them. Never feel ashamed for feeling a certain way about someone or something. That is what I hope to apply to my own life from now on — honesty with others. Life is way too short.

It’s both scary and amazing what grief can do to the body, mind and soul. It has been two holiday seasons since I last spent time with my stepfather — since the last time he was physically here with everyone. This recent Thanksgiving and Christmas have been the hardest; triggering many nights of crying, discouragement and even disgust with being around other people. Whether they were family or friends, I felt like being alone this holiday season. I chose not to be, except for New Year’s Eve, which gave me a lot of relief and clarity in trying to figure out how to process and deal with grief, including moving forward and beyond.

It was comforting to be alone that evening and night, knowing that he was here. His ashes are in their new place at home where I can see him every day when I wake up or come back. He’s always been here spiritually; or in the heart, as I have heard most people say.

At the end of the day, I am still trying to figure out life in general and the unexpected moments that can occur.

I don’t know why my stepfather had to leave us all so soon. I was one of many people who wanted to spend more time with him; to see him grow old with my mom and to see my niece grow up through childhood and adulthood. Or even for him to be there when we wanted to vent or ask for his advice on something, whether that was heartbreak, celebration, or just to see how each other’s days were. There’s plenty of events he has yet to be involved with in my own life.

Perhaps there will never be a “normal.” Just memories to reflect on when times seem to get worse or sad, thinking of something to laugh about, whether that be him always referring to mom and I as his, “Latina woman,” or how him and the family cat, Matty, were bros. Matty always ran to him as soon as he returned home from work. I will always miss his jokes or making a lot of noise when he woke up early in the morning, even on the weekends. That was just my stepfather being my stepfather — an early bird who had a routine, a routine I even adapted to when he and mom got married and I lived with them.

But there is usually never a right answer — just doing what soothes the mind and still pursuing whatever makes me happy. Because my stepfather would have wanted that if he was still here.

man with hat smiling at camera

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA‘s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Getty image via kieferpix

Originally published: January 30, 2018
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