Note: This post does not have a revelation at the end. There is no answer or neat-bow ending. If you take away anything from this, it will merely be acceptance of what we cannot control. I just needed to get some feelings on paper.
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 before I was 15 or so, 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 awhile, 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 Dad had a heart attack, and ten days later he was dead. It was sudden, quick and the worst ten days of my life. Dad passed away on January 28, 2017 around 1AM. 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 of antidepressants. After 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 that 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 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.”
And, even though I could have guessed that, 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; that 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, and it was real, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
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. 2017 was meant to be the year I start a new chapter in my life with André, but I never planned for it to be without my Dad. The overwhelming sadness I feel has absolutely been uncomfortable, but I also can live with the sadness. I know that 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 think there might be solace in ignorance to the process.
Trigger Warning: graphic details of Dad’s hospital stay and death
Other than with my therapist and the family that was with me at Dad’s bedside, I haven’t discussed these 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 unclean 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 BO 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 for a quick moment.
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 where 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 Andre 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.
One of the biggest triggers for me has been weddings. We have a lot of friends getting married this year in addition to our own wedding. Obviously I’ve been dealing with getting married and planning a wedding without my Dad, but attending other weddings has been a totally different ballgame. Weddings are very parent-focused, especially for the bride. I don’t handle the father-daughter dances well. I walked out of one to get air. I sobbed at another and felt like I couldn’t breathe.
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 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 André, 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. And I might forever.
At the end of the day, I know my grief is here for awhile. My sadness over losing my Dad is here to stay. I knew I was going into 2017 to start a new chapter. It has become a different chapter than I had outlined. It’s still new, but it’s more difficult. It’s still a celebration of life, but it has somber moments.
I miss Dad so much. I miss him every day. I still wait for him to call. I still want to ask him for advice. I still want to hug him, to talk to him about movies and new TV shows, to help him cook on Christmas, to watch as he makes me breakfast when I visit, to let him give me shit about politics, to laugh at his stories. I miss him more than I thought I could ever miss anyone. 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.
I love you, Dad. I’m so sorry.