The Grieving Parent as the Abstinent Alcoholic

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By Suzanne Leigh

I was at the grocery store catching up with an acquaintance, a mother whose child had been Natasha’s classmate since kindergarten. I had remembered both of them from Natasha’s memorial; in particular, I had remembered the face of her son, flushed with brimming emotion that he was trying to keep in check as he bravely looked me in the eye to offer his condolences.

But that was then. This was a crisp chitchat that ended with a cheery goodbye.

“Have a great summer!” she called after me. Great summer? Great? I couldn’t let that one slip by me. But how to politely call her on it without sounding hostile?

I cautiously turned to face her. “Well, I won’t be having a great summer. We lost our Natasha only seven months ago. We are desperately sad. But we hope the summer will be OK and that we’ll cope.”

She nodded and I thought that I saw compassion and empathy.

Hearty mandates to be happy

I’ve been mulling over that exchange and discussing it with my bereaved mom friend, Kris. Have-a-great-summer! Have-a-great-weekend! Enjoy-the-rest-of-the-day! Happy-Mother’s-Day! Happy-July-4! And so on: the hearty mandates to be happy, to enjoy, to have a great time, an awesome time; these will continue to march by and gather momentum at Halloween, reaching a crashing crescendo with Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Christmas, Happy New Year — the brightest, most celebratory time of the year — the darkest, most desperate time for us, because those holidays will forever mark the anniversary of when our gorgeous girl left this world.

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Of course these well wishes are well meant. But acknowledging them with a “thank you” or a nod, or even ignoring them, in my mind is tantamount to stating: yes, my daughter passed away only months ago, but you know what, life is good …

Life is not good for us bereaved parents, who valued our child’s life far more than our own. Life is a chore for much of the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the friends and family and kind people in our lives and especially our surviving child. But each day continues to present heart-stopping Natasha-triggers that grab us by the guts and suck us into a swirling cesspool of misery. (Yes, Natasha died. She really died. In our arms. On that couch. Her body was wrapped up and taken away from us. She won’t be back. Ever.)

The longer that Natasha has been gone, the higher the expectations from the non-bereaved to be our old selves again, to show curiosity, to demonstrate concern for others and their problems and ailments, to be productive, to be fun even. We’re learning to wing it and we’re getting good at it, but the emotional effort is exhausting and can’t be sustained for prolonged periods.

Meanwhile other people who cared about Natasha have recovered from her death. They’ve moved on. It’s understandable; she wasn’t their child, after all.

Forever recovering

A wish list written by an anonymous grieving parent was sent to me by my friend, Kris. Among those wishes was one that sang out to me: “I wish you wouldn’t expect my grief to be over in six months. The first few years are going to be exceedingly traumatic. As with alcoholics, I’ll never be cured … but forever more, recovering from my bereavement.”

I like the parallel between the alcoholic and the bereaved parent. The bereaved parent might forever wrestle with grief and define themselves by their loss, just as the former compulsive drinker is forever a “recovering alcoholic,” wrestling with the urge to go back to the bottle.

 “I am a new person with new thoughts, dreams, aspirations, values and beliefs,” continues the wish-list writer. “Please try to get to know the new me.”

I like that, too. I don’t think that the “new me” is a compelling person to be around, though. I’m less fun, less interesting and less interested than the old me.

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