Even though I live a life of joy, I will never stop grieving. Here's why...
Updated: Jan 28
Content may be sensitive for those who've experienced childhood loss, trauma, neglect, or suicide. Help is available at 1-800-273-8255.
First of all, even though I experienced a high level of loss as a young person, I was also fortunate to be a person of privilege. By that, I mean very specifically: I was white, I was not impoverished, and there were some wonderful adults - some of whom with traumatic childhoods of their own - who guided and loved me through it.
I feel it's important to acknowledge and be thankful for the advantages I received out of the pure luck of being born who, where, and when I was. Imagining my experiences through a lens of escalated damage due to racism, abject poverty, or generational trauma helps me honor those who had it much worse than I.
Also, I acknowledge that my story may be remembered differently by family members and others who were there. This is my truth, and I honor and respect theirs. Additionally, our experience can shift with time as we grow and gain perspective. I love my family, and those who raised me loved me too and tried their best. They had troubles and traumas, and I have sadness and grace for all of them. I also want to acknowledge that one of my coping mechanisms was disassociating. As a result, I blocked out some of what happened, or I recall it slightly altered. We can share more about why this happens in future posts.
So what happened?
My parents fell in love and married young but divorced in the 1970s when I was six and my brother was three. There seemed to be a culture of divorce in those days as many of their friends also parted ways. I don't recall Mom and Dad fighting, but I remember tension. As children, we were not told why they split, but I soon learned my father blamed himself (though he needn't - it takes two), and my mother felt they were too different to stay together. There are many gaps in this story that I'll never be able to fill.
My mother took us to live in the same town as her parents, where she completed her college degree and embraced her career as a teacher. The divorce was swept under the rug. Mom had a lively, generous personality, and she was a loving, creative, and intentional mother. We were surrounded by grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and a large number of devoted friends. We missed Dad and saw him for visits, but it was not often enough. School was fine; my brother and I played with our dog, friends, and cousins; we lived in a lovely little home in a safe neighborhood. Of course, things weren't perfect, but I am grateful for the memories of these years.
When I was nine, and my brother was six, this time of security came to a crashing halt when our darling mother was killed in a violent car accident along with three of her friends. This loss remains a defining moment in my life.
Before Mom's death, my father remarried a divorcee with two daughters of her own. I recall being upset at their wedding. I liked her ok but felt sad to see my dad with someone other than my mother. Thankfully, I was completely enamored with our new stepsiblings.
My grandfather began experiencing dementia around the time of my parent's divorce, but after Mom's accident, his disease went into overdrive. This left my devastated grandmother in the position of caring for suffering children while experiencing her own grief coupled with an excruciating, lengthy farewell to her husband. You'll hear a lot about Mimo. She is my North Star.
My little brother and I moved to my dad's town to live with him, his new wife, and our stepsisters. Despite good intentions, things did not go well. My father worked long hours, and my stepmother was mentally unstable. Receiving bereaved children into the home was a breaking point for her. She was a daily abuser of alcohol and prescription drugs, and for the next six years, my brother and I and our stepsisters experienced neglect, endangerment, and emotional abuse. While we were not physically harmed, we lived in a state of fear and worry. My grandmother swooped in to help when she could, and we raced to visit her as much as possible. Our oldest stepsister was fortunate to graduate high school and head away to college, safely out on her own. However, her little sister was stuck with us until her father removed her from the home when she entered high school.
Our household was dark, dirty, and in disrepair. I was ashamed to have friends over. Our stepmother stayed in bed all day. There was little supervision, neglected nutrition, unruly pets, and sometimes drunken drives to school. She would get herself together one day only to crater the next. Lamps were thrown. She made wild accusations against my father, and us. I remember sitting on the stairs with my little brother and stepsister, listening to her irrational perseverations below, silently willing it to stop.
As a young teenager, I began drinking with my friends. This form of escape was exhibited to us kids daily by our stepmother. Our father was stuck in a codependent relationship with her; his daily efforts focused on survival. She was in and out of treatment. Many nights Dad would leave a little money on the kitchen counter with a note that said, "At the hospital with Emily."
Almost two years after my mother was killed, our uncle lost his life in a car accident. This rocked me as he had been one of my trusted adults when Mom was alive. His wife and children, our cousins, were devastated, and my brother and I joined them in their grief. A couple of years later, my grandfather lost his battle with Alzheimer's. His illness was long and hard. I do not know how my grandmother managed this loss while giving my brother and me so much attention and care.
After my stepsister was removed from our home, my stepmother's illness was exacerbated, and she was checked into a mental facility for at least the second time. We attended family therapy before and during this time. Unfortunately, rather than helpful, it was brutalizing. I get a lump in my throat when I think about the things our stepmother would say to us in "therapy." At the same time, the counselors would gaze at my brother, my stepsister, and myself and calmly ask, "How does that make you kids feel?" (As an adult, I spent a lot of time with REAL therapists helping me address the labels these "professionals" assigned to me as a child).
In my sophomore year of high school, I was called out of class. My father was waiting for me in the office wearing dark glasses, and we went to the middle school to pick up my brother. I knew something terrible was about to happen. I cannot recall if our stepsister was with us and the memories of these moments are fuzzy. When we got home, a few people were there, including a minister friend of my father's. They told us that our stepmother had managed to take her own life at the hospital, even though she lived on a suicide watch. Apparently, her roommate helped her though I may be misremembering this. I was in absolute shock and still do not feel I have fully processed this experience.
My feelings about this deeply depressed woman and her death continue to be mixed. She tried, was creative, and was brilliant, but she was tortured and sick, and I can't help but wonder if we hadn't gone to live with them, might she be alive today? I have so much compassion for her, for my father, for her beautiful daughters, and her family, but I won't lie; her behavior gave me nightmares that still surface from time to time.
As we moved through the next year and a half, we continued with unhealthy behaviors, some of which were considered normal for teens back then: drinking, sneaking out, riding in fast cars. Dad was able to focus on us, and we had some good times. He reconnected with a girlfriend from elementary school, and they began seeing each other, which meant my father traveled to her town most weekends. While this relationship would be a lasting one, its origination left my brother and me at home alone for days at a time. I recall more notes on the kitchen counter, ten dollars cash, a full liquor cabinet. My brother and I had friends' parents who'd been there for us through the second-wife years, and they continued to fold us in. While we will always be grateful to these beautiful families, the self-inflicted label "charity case" has been a problematic identity for me to release.
Dad and his third wife married when I was a senior in high school. They are together today and have a blissful relationship. She is a bonus mother to me and a terrific grandmother to our daughters, and I am delighted they found one another. She came to the marriage with a daughter and son a little younger than my brother and myself. My relationship with her daughter is a rare gift received by only the luckiest of blended families. Tragically, her son was killed in a drowning accident when he was only 16. I wish I had received more opportunities to know him as he was precious, but I was away at college by this time. The intense pain of his passing for his mother and sister once again left my father's household swimming in grief.
While I was ok with my father remarrying, I pulled away emotionally though I doubt anyone noticed. As a classic peacekeeper, I appeared to embrace the situation. I departed the scene for college as quickly and politely as I could, leaving my little brother to twist in the winds of familial change. I feel guilt over not being there for him, struggling to live under a brand new set of rules, coping with a father who suddenly embraced a completely different set of sensibilities, more new siblings, another new family. We had become very close to our first stepmother's family, and when she died, they cut us off. Did they blame my father and the arrival of his two grieving children for her demise? I will probably never know the truth. They completely disappeared from our lives except for sporadic connections with our stepsisters. As a result, while I smiled and tried my best to be welcoming, I did not rush to embrace our new step-extended family. It turns out they were wonderful people who have been kinder to me than I ever expected.
As I said earlier, I was more fortunate than many, and I see that in spades as I write this. I have not said enough about my knight in shining armor, my grandmother, about how thankful I am for my brilliant and strong brother, about how much I admire my dad for his many gifts, or about the others who gave me support and respite, but I'll stop for now. If you've made it to this point, thank you for reading. Backing out and taking a bird's eye look at my childhood has helped me see things I need to work on, and I hope that has helped you see that however much time it takes is normal for each of us. I'm 53, and it has been many years since these events, yet I continue to learn from them. I hope by sharing my experience you will become comfortable in sharing yours.
Someone once said, grief is not a sign of weakness, it is a process that builds strength. Every time we tell our story, we metabolize something, we get healthier, we heal.
I look forward to seeing the miracle of healing unfold within you,