On the other side of grief and loss

On December 30, 2005, my little corner of the universe shifted. The phone rang around 8 p.m. I was at home with my youngest child. The two older kids had gone to visit friends. My husband, who was an equine veterinarian, had called several hours earlier to say he had to go on a colic call at a nearby farm. We’d been married close to 20 years, and I knew that a colic call could take a while, so I was not concerned that he was not home yet.

When the phone rang, I assumed it was my husband, saying he was on his way. Instead, a man said there had been an accident, “A man was hurt real bad, and an ambulance was coming.” He’d found our dog, with our phone number on the dog tag. That was when the universe shifted. I asked him what had happened. He did not know, only repeated that the man was badly hurt and the ambulance was coming. I could hear sirens in the background.

I took my son to the neighbors and headed to the hospital. I remember crying and praying as I drove. I called my parents, my husband’s mom, and our priest. I was taken to a room in the ER and told to wait. Family, a few friends, and neighbors gathered.

When the kids and I were finally allowed to see Dave, I almost passed out. He was so very battered and broken from being ejected from his truck. He was unconscious and hooked up to all kinds of machines. I remember the kids crying at him to wake up. He never did.

Shortly thereafter, I was told he was brain dead and asked about organ donation. There was no chance to say goodbye. That’s when the universe turned upside down and inside out. Suddenly I was a widow; the kids, who were 16, 14, and 11, were fatherless. It felt as though a deep, dark pit had opened at my feet.

We never found any record of a call coming in for colic that night. The sheriff delivered the official report that told us three things: Dave had not been wearing his seat belt, he had been driving too fast, and he was drunk.

“Three strikes and you’re out,” in his words, took on a new meaning. The kids had not known that their father was an alcoholic. I had worked very, very hard to hide this from them, so the last “strike” was a huge shock. In the months that followed, a few folks told me stories about Dave’s struggles. However, the circumstances of his death were a shock to most in our community. Dave had hidden his addiction well.

In the months to come, that deep dark pit got deeper and darker, as the depth of the financial difficulties that Dave had been having at the clinic— and hiding from me—was revealed. Why didn’t he tell me? Why didn’t he ask for help? How could he leave me with all this?

Trying to support three grieving, hurting, and confused kids, as well as dealing with what became known as “the clinic mess,” threatened to overwhelm and consume me. The grief came in what I can only describe as relentless, pounding waves, but I had little time to grieve myself. It was as if some dark force was trying to knock me down and drag me under.

How I wish I had Al‑Anon in those days! I had gone to a few meetings many years before, until Dave found out and went ballistic. Dave could be a kind “gentle giant,” but he was also a large man with a scary, volatile, and unpredictable temper. As a “people pleaser,” I caved in and stopped going to meetings.

At one point, Dave went to an A.A. meeting, but he told me it was no help and rejected everything he found there. When he wasn’t denying that he had a problem, he was trying to manage his disease with vitamin regimens and self-help books. I tried to manage it by trying to be the perfect wife, keeping the perfect house, raising perfect children, pouring out portions of his beers, trying to “distract” him. The list went on and on. I can now say, “silly me.”

What kept me going in the months after Dave died was the presence of many, many angels. Angels like my college friends, who paid my mortgage, car payment, and the kids’ music lessons and sports fees for the first year; angelic friends who came and walked with me and just listened; angels who brought countless meals; angels like my counselor and lawyers, and this list goes on. I knew that somehow my Higher Power was at work in the darkness.

The legal issues with the clinic took three years to resolve. The financial fallout and insecurity are still a part of life. The grief lingers.

The effects of Dave’s alcoholism are present almost daily. I am learning a new way of life in Al‑Anon, but it takes time. The kids and I are still struggling with many unresolved issues. Some days it feels as though we have walked through them, and on other days, it feels like they are still right in our faces.

Earlier, I described grief as wave-like. I can safely say that there were times the waves of sorrow, fear, anger, and worry threatened to pull me under. Grief doesn’t have a set expiration date or shelf life. It does have, as is stated in the book Opening our Hearts, Transforming our Losses (B‑29), a recurring nature. I have found that this recurring nature is unpredictable.

There have been times over the past years that I expected to be flattened, only to have the wave pass gently over. Other times, I have been surprised by the force and power of it when it has risen up unexpectedly. And, oddly enough, there are times when grief and joy, despite being on opposite ends of the emotion spectrum, walk hand in hand.

One example of this came about two months ago, when my oldest graduated from college. As the president of the student body, he gave a speech at graduation. In the days leading up to the ceremony, I was so proud of him, so filled with joy at what he had accomplished, who he was becoming, and simultaneously so filled with sorrow and grief that his father would not be there. Yes, that graduation morning, Dave was present in spirit in his siblings and other family members gathered, but he was not there to shake his son’s hand. Grief is recurring, and grief work is continual.

In recent months in these rooms, in reading our literature, and in discussions with my Sponsor and others, I have learned a great deal about Dave’s disease, our daughter’s, and its effects on me.

Opening Our Hearts, Transforming Our Losses was not a fun, easy read, but was very illuminating and affirming. It is indeed true that a lot of grief surrounds alcoholism: grief at the ways it impacts almost every area of our lives; grief at the change in or loss of relationships; grief at lost dreams; grief at financial devastation; grief at many “what if’s”, or “if only’s.”

While recently, I have more compassion for what Dave was going through, there is also grief and anger that he never found recovery before he died. There is anger and grief over the control he exercised over me for many years—and at myself for allowing him to have it.

Would my standing up to him and attending Al‑Anon meetings, and beginning my own recovery work years ago have perhaps opened a path for him to find sobriety? Would his finding sobriety have spared our daughter from this disease? If his mother had not hidden and denied her diseases, could both Dave and our daughter be in better places today? I don’t know, and will never know. These are but some of those un-answerables of life, and there are many surrounding this disease.

The book also has a section called “Relief.” I can sincerely say that I felt relief for Dave that he was no longer suffering. Beneath this, however, also ran an element of relief for myself that I would no longer have to walk on eggshells all the time, not knowing what might make him angry.

Certainly, I would have preferred this relief to come in other ways—his getting help, finding sobriety, or even our living separately. I felt incredibly guilty for having these feelings, and it was only through work with a counselor that I came to recognize and eventually begin to accept them. Reading that others have had similar feelings of relief was affirming and encouraging; seeing, in black and white, that I was not (and I am not) some horrible monster for having these feelings.

It was hard and bewildering to see and feel that Dave was not the man I fell in love with and married, and to feel powerless to really do anything about the changes that were happening. I cannot change the past. I cannot change my mistakes or Dave’s. We cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube, no matter how much we might wish we could.

I can learn from the past, however, and strive to do things differently today. Thanks to Al‑Anon’s program, I am learning to articulate my feelings and to bring them to light. I am learning the importance of focusing on what is real and present in my life today.

I am learning to rest in the assurance that God does not expect perfection from me, only that I keep moving forward as best I can, leaning on my Higher Power. I have learned that angels will be there to help me out of the dark (a dark that has gotten less and less deep with time) and back into the light.

By Laura C.
The Forum, July 2013