Grieving a Glass Half-Empty

By B.Berger 05/24/17

To have an addict in your life is to accept that each time you see that person might be the last.

Woman looking off, grieving, at shallow water bed
It can be hard to draw meaning from the lasting grief of growing up the child of an addict

I didn’t think much about the evening ritual of hide-and-seek we’d play with my father when I was a kid. It’s just what we did a couple of nights a week:

The sun is setting and Dad isn’t home. Mom can’t get in touch with him at the office. My kid sister, my toddler brother and I jump into the silver Toyota van and we drive through the small downtown area where a handful of bars litter each side of the street. Mom searches from left to right for Dad’s car. And then we prepare for the disheartened look on Mom’s face as she emerges from the bar where she finds Dad hiding behind vodka martinis.

The hide-and-seek game continued for years, into my early adulthood, until my father got so lost in addiction that he could no longer be found. So lost that, at times, I’ve assumed the identity of a “fatherless child.”

And with the assumption of that identity came overwhelming feelings of loss that I couldn’t understand. Why did I feel like I was mourning someone who I knew was alive, somewhere?

Because I was and still am.

An Episcopalian funeral liturgy says that in the midst of life we are in death. While we all walk around with expiration dates, I feel that those who have fallen victim to addiction dangerously teeter the line between life and death, becoming ghosts that filter in and out of our lives alongside briefly hopeful moments of sobriety. The anguish of living in the purgatory of unknowing—which dad was I going to get on the phone today? The slurring one? Or the brilliant one?—propelled me into grief.

The traditional Kübler-Ross model, first proposed in the 1969 book On Death and Dying, suggests that grief appears in the forms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I knew something about denial. Alcoholism—the disease of denial—turns its host into a robot of repudiation who continuously offers itself and its loved ones false confidences about the possibility of sobriety. I felt anger over the holidays ruined by drunken rage. Bargaining came in the form of ultimatums and rehab. Depression over lost potential. And acceptance when I had a therapist tell me that to have an addict in your life is to accept that each time you see that person might be the last.

In her recent reflections on grief, Sheryl Sandberg explains how psychologist Martin Seligman’s “3 P’s” helped her process the sudden loss of her husband. They can, in my experience, also explain common thought patterns present in adult children of addicts. Personalizing happens when we assume unnecessary responsibility for the bad things that happen to us. Children of addicts are notorious for this, becoming excessive people-pleasers in an attempt to avoid disappointment and hurt. A situation becomes pervasive when a person believes that it will affect all areas of his or her life and permanent when there is little hope that the situation will ever change.

In my own grieving, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt that my father’s alcoholism would permanently affect the important areas of my life: my ability to find satisfaction in my work, form healthy relationships and avoid addictive impulses myself. But, I found relief and encouragement in the work of Dr. Sidney Zisook, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego well known for his research on grief and bereavement.

Zisook’s work recognizes the highly variable and personal nature of grief. Within what Zisook refers to as an “uncomplicated” grieving process, a person moves from acute grief—the feelings of panic, anxiety, despair and depression immediately following a loss—to integrated grief. A person integrates grief when he or she is able to reflect on a lost loved one while also engaging in day-to-day activities and even feeling happiness. That does not mean, however, that there are not still moments of anguish.

A person can move even further in their grieving process, entering a phase of “meaning-making.” Following integrated grief, a person may begin to redefine the relationship with the lost one and find new, healthy ways of interacting with the memory of that person. This could mean getting involved with a cause that affected the person, making memorial donations in that person’s name, or as is the case here, simply being able to share something about the experience of losing someone important.

Loss is inherent to the very definition of addiction—it happens when a person loses himself, in every way, to substance. I have felt acute grief many times throughout my life associated with exposure to addictive behaviors. The ability to reflect on those feelings wasn’t possible until I had the realization that even though I wasn’t addicted to substance I was still losing myself to addiction by virtue of tolerating that behavior in my life.

There’s a common sentiment in writings on grief that death seems only semi-permanent, that the longing for a lost one to come back never really goes away. This sentiment resonates with me, but in a slightly different way. I have both strong longing for a sober father to come back into my life and a painful awareness that the potentially happy moments, past and present, lost to his addiction are dead and permanently gone.

Thornton Wilder, the American playwright and novelist, writes, “All that we know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies.” My willingness to grieve my relationship with my father has allowed me to think of him not just as someone who struggles with addiction, but also as someone who gave me the opportunity to exercise empathy and understanding of the deepest kind for people enduring suffering.

So, in my grief I have found a semblance of gratitude. And that is where I will start making meaning.

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