The Transformative Power of Grief and Loss

By Christopher Smith 10/27/17

I was becoming what I hated most in this world. I was becoming my father. It was the metamorphosis of the monster.

A man sits on a ledge, city behind him, looking defeated.
Grief is a funny emotion. One never really knows when and how it is going to manifest. Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

I was newly recovering from my final relapse when my father unexpectedly became seriously ill. After a three-week stint in the ICU, we ended up making the brutal decision to turn off life-support. The ICU staff reassured me time and again that we--myself and his wife--were making the right decision, honoring his wishes since any sign of a promising prognosis was a grim prospect.

Once the decision was made, the procedure was very unceremonious. The nurses removed the ventilator and dialysis machines and unhooked the various tubes artificially keeping his body alive--if that’s even the proper word to use. After the chaplain came in and said a few very superficial words that sounded as hollow as the feeling in my chest, she dimmed the lights and left. All that was left were his immediate family: my wife and stepmother; myself and my younger brother. There was nothing left to do but wait...and think.

His body finally gave up the ghost after an interminable eight hours without the machines keeping him working. On the day he died, I believe I was 47 days clean.

Like many other people with addiction, I come from a long line of terminally abused and chronically addicted family members: a broken shell and bastardization of what the typical picket-fence American life should be. I swore when I was a child that I would not become what I had seen in my father: the violent drunken outbursts; him unconscious in his recliner from benzo abuse.

We never knew where he was when he wasn’t home, nor did we know what shape he would be in when he came home. His being late was at the same time a relief and slight reprieve as well as reason to panic with what would seem irrational thoughts to those not in the same situation as myself. Would he come home fucked up and filled with hate, ready to raise a heavy hand--or would my stepmother have to bail him out of jail again, as she always so diligently did?

It wasn’t a far leap of faith for me to discover that drugs were an effective and instant release from the stresses of a life that had already been ruined by them. I was smoking pot by 13; by 18 I was drunk daily and by 20 I was on cocaine. It only took me so long to graduate to heroin because it wasn’t readily available in my area at that time. They truly, temporarily at least, took my mind off of the constant worry about what fresh hell would await with the next ring of the phone, but at that time I was too blinded to see that they also anchored me to that painful part of my life because I simply wasn’t financially able to completely take care of myself. Turns out a serious drug problem is pretty expensive. Who knew?

This cycle continued for a little over 10 years. I would stay high and stay away--keeping everyone and everything a good distance from me emotionally. Then I would inevitably fuck up and get arrested, or in some other way end up needing some money and right back in the midst of all the chaos and bullshit. The chaos and bullshit, that crushing stress, would always lead me right back to using whatever substance it was that I was hooked on at that time.

Finally, something terrible and tragic happened: my stepmom ended up having to shoot him in self-defense. It’s only truly tragic because she didn’t kill him.

It was around this time that I got hooked on heroin.

Not long after the shooting I ended up having a domestic violence order taken out against my dad, as he was threatening to kill my wife, child, and myself. Heroin numbed the emotional pain I was carrying around; there’s no need to deal with it or learn to cope if you can’t really feel it.

I spent the next three years in an emotional void--cycling through therapists, pretending I had my shit together, hiding the nightmares and masking the pain. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I couldn’t keep a job. I couldn’t finish school. I had a hard time even going out in public without having a panic attack or bubbling up with the very same rage that I had seen in my father and swore I didn’t have in me. The addiction constantly escalated. There were numerous times that I completely lost hope. The vague notion that life could get better seemed nothing more than a fairy-tale; I was resigned to my fate to die a hopeless junkie because I wasn’t strong enough to face the pain of my past. It was just.too.much.

After every relapse I would say “never again” only to fall short and totally disappoint myself and everyone around me who still cared.

Then I received the phone call my from little brother that my dad was hallucinating and just wasn’t right. He had to sneak off somewhere to make the call as he was forbidden from talking to me since the filing of the D.V.O. We had hardly spoken at all in a little over two years--and when we did it was only briefly and if something terrible were happening. I had learned to fear his calls as much as I missed him.

My wife and I both have a fairly strong and solid background in the medical field, and as we were hearing the list of his symptoms, she jumped to the conclusion that he was likely septic. It took relaying a trickle of information back and forth between my brother and myself for my wife and I to find out what was going on and for my stepmother to recognize that she needed to get him to the hospital at any cost. Even after hours of back-and-forths, she could not get him to go. The man would not be led anywhere that he did not want to go--and the hospital was at the top of the list of those places. It was not until four the next morning that he finally acquiesced, after failing to make it to the bathroom and relieving himself on the floor.

Little did we know, this would be the last time he would ever be conscious in this world. He was dead in 20 days.

Grief is a funny emotion. One never really knows when and how it is going to manifest. I’m still not sure what I was grieving for; the man was a monster. But for quite some time I was catastrophically angry and experiencing a profound sense of loss. I suppose it would be easier to move on if there were never any good times with him, but that ‘s not the case. When you caught him in a good mood, he was hilarious and could be very charming. I suppose that is yet another reason so many abused continue to return to their abusers--once you’ve been away for a while, it’s easy to forget just how bad the bad truly was, as the brain doesn’t accurately remember pain. That probably has something to do with why I relapsed on heroin so many times as well.

I am still fundamentally learning how to deal with the grief and pain that life affords us without the use of a powerful substance as a crutch, but I consider what has happened to me a blessing now. Since his passing, I simply haven’t wanted to get high, which is nothing short of a miracle for me. But it’s still all so much, experiencing life on life’s terms, as it were. I have realized much in this short period of sobriety and intense emotional time, first and foremost being that I am not eternal. I have a finite amount of time on this planet in which to do what I want and need to achieve before I meet whatever is waiting for us all in that Great Beyond.

And I know that sounds absurd--the thought that as a 33-year-old man I am only now accepting the fact that one day I Will Die. But as addicts, I think we all have a sense of immortality to some degree, considering what awful shit we subjected ourselves to and made it out of alive and mostly intact. I have also always had the vague notion that I will die, just as I have the vague notion that everyone reading this will also die--but it has never felt so concrete. I’ve never seen it in capital letters, in bold. My father was 56; his brother was 45. I have yet to see any of their siblings make it to their sixties. That doesn’t bode well for the time I have left on this planet.

But with that realization came another, more heartening thought out of this grief and anger: I truly want to live. Now that I’m clean, I mostly enjoy my life. Things are far from perfect or how I envisioned them to be when I reached this age, but for all of the dumb shit that I’ve done, I seriously can’t complain. Since I have developed a tangible sense of my own mortality, I have realized that shortening our already brief time on this planet by way of substance or another method of self-destruction is the real tragedy. I’m not trying to lecture anyone out there who still wants to get high, but the thought of blocking out even my worst day seems all the less appealing considering I don’t know how many of those days I may have left. I’ve squandered so many already, trying to avoid what has been a fairly painful experience, and I want to make the best of what time I have left. After all, without feeling the pain, we can’t see the beauty.

At my father’s funeral, the preacher asked to speak to me in private before the beginning of the service. I’ve known Boo a long time--he is a solid, salt of the earth man with a heart of gold, so what he says always carries the extra weight of having that truly moral merit and high consideration that many people’s words simply don’t have.

“Chris,” he softly told me, looking me dead in the eye “I won’t lie, even at a man’s funeral, and your father didn’t want me to. He told me a few years back that I would be the one preaching at his service when it happened, and he told me not to get up there and tell everyone what a good man he was, because he wasn’t. He knew he wasn’t a good man.”

Boo paused for effect and laid his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Chris. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. He wanted me to preach the word and that’s what I’m going to do. You let me know if you need to talk.” With my agreed silence, he walked away.

The preacher’s words have sat heavily with me almost daily. I think that’s the most important thing that I have learned from dealing with this death; this grief. I don’t want to go to the grave with unfinished business. I don’t want to be carrying around the weight of the guilt of knowing that I am not a good man while there is still time to correct that. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what my addiction did to me. I lied. I cheated and stole. I’ve worried my family to death. Said awful things to those who care the most for me. I was becoming what I hated most in this world. I was becoming my father. It was the metamorphosis of the monster. And it was past time to change; to right those wrongs. Because we only have so much time left here.

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Chris is a survivor of the opiate epidemic and tries to be a advocate for those still suffering from addiction. From the dark hollows of Appalachia and based in Lexington KY, he writes full-time and is thankful to have the opportunity to do so. He can be reached at [email protected]