My husband had rotator-cuff surgery on an outpatient basis. On the second day that he was home, he lost consciousness when I took off the surgical bandage. Not armed with enough medical knowledge, I felt scared for him and didn’t know what to do. My hands shook as I frantically held him upright in the chair and called out his name. Later, after my husband had regained consciousness, we laughed. He fainted because the bandage came off with most of his chest hairs.
Nonetheless, that inadequate feeling I had with my husband that day reminded me of how I felt when I found my father. I felt helpless, afraid, and called out his name. After my husband’s bandages were changed, I lost myself in a ton of housework.
Even before I saw my father’s body, I knew something wasn’t right. His garage was strangely quiet. The old, manual garage-door was lowered too much; the dog tied-up outside the door looked too sad. I had a dozen questions running inside my head. Where was he—on a walk? Why hadn’t he taken his dog? As if reacting to a premonition, my heart pounded when I pulled up the door. My hands shook and time seemed to stop. When I stepped inside, I called out, “Daddy.” That one word echoed off the walls of my mind since he died.
My mother and sister said I took control that day, arranged things. It was my way of fighting off what happened to me in that garage. I came up against the core of what was horribly uncontrollable; my mind disassociated from reality. Later, I went on auto-pilot and made a to-do list. Organizing, making calls, watching after my mother as if she were my only concern—all that was an effort to stop feeling helpless. I actually felt heartless because I couldn’t feel anything, but I wasn’t. I was just in shock. I was a vulnerable adult-child hiding behind tasks and to-do lists.
Sometimes just listening to my own breath brings me to the realization that many things are uncontrollable. I do not have to be afraid of everything that I can’t control. If I hold my breath, mostly I will just pass out and breathe again.
I grew up in a family with fuzzy, soft boundaries. With Daddy on out-of-town jobs most of my young childhood, emotional limits between my mother, sister, and I became either invisible or non-existent. I was so emotionally mashed into my mother and sister that I didn’t know where they stopped and I began. Maybe for a child that sort of close attachment is normal and healthy for a while, but it stayed with me too far into adulthood. In my mind, the three of us defined each other.
Change was always hard on the three of us. In the name of worry, we gossiped about each other. My sister and mother had a field day when I got a divorce. In the name of resentment, my sister and I joined together and labeled my mother as selfish when she looked to her own life or meddlesome when she peered too sharply into ours. In the name of concern, my mother and I talked about my sister’s weight issues. I think the three of us hated and enjoyed our talks. It was how we played the one-up games, who’s responsible, who’s not, who’s in-charge. My father sidestepped most of those games by being absent, silent or unaware. I never thought any of us could truly take care of ourselves, so in my mind, I became the self-appointed manager. Even into my adult life, I felt overly responsible for, and resentful of, the goings-on in my first family.
Daddy’s suicide threw me into a caretaking-frenzy. I was frightened my mother or sister would also choose suicide. I heard too many statistics of how suicide seems almost contagious in families. I spent a fortune in phone bills keeping up with everyone’s problems. Detachment wasn’t an option, or so I thought. I was scared of how guilty I would feel if something happened to one of them. Letting go meant I needed to face how powerless I was.
In the name of fear and concern, I called my sister and mother daily. I listened to their feelings and felt resentful for how occupied they were with themselves. If they asked, I usually told them I was doing fine. I wasn’t fine.
Over-concern is a pseudo-defense against being powerless; sometimes
caretaking is a way of hiding from grief. Detachment from another’s grief isn’t selfish or hateful. It’s necessary.
Daddy’s death changed me. The instant helplessness on the day of his suicide catapulted me into an earlier mind-set. I was like a child who had not yet learned a language, full of needs and fighting to find the words. For a long time my world was nothing but childish confusion.
Child-like needs filled me in numerous ways. Keeping in constant touch with my mother was one of them. One day at work when I couldn’t get her on the phone, I had a panic attack. I started crying and couldn’t stop. “My mind’s running away with me,” I breathlessly told my boss. No other explanation fell from my lips. All I could see was her lying helpless or dead in her house. She was actually at the grocery store.
Another childish defense was that I looked to the supernatural to justify harsh realities. I believed a demon possessed my parents’ house. Daddy had become obsessed over their septic tank not working. It was the last thing I heard him talk about. I felt an evil spirit had taken up residence there—in that dirty tank. Surely a demon was what killed him. At that time there was no other way for me to confront the evil of depression and suicide.
Visiting my mother afterwards was horrifying. “I hate this,” I’d cry to my husband. He always went with me that first year, or else I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t name what “this” was, but my husband didn’t ask. Probably nothing I said that first year made much sense to him.
But last night a screech owl flew close to my bedroom window. Its sound, screeched-out like an ancient prayer, gently awoke the adult in me. Wrapping my arms around my chest, I came to understand. Not only did I sorrow over the loss of my father, my very own child-like emotions needed comfort. I curled into a fetus position in the bed and hummed myself to sleep.
Grief is confusion of the heart. Try to understand and comfort your child-like nature.