Delayed Grief

Photo: K. Mitch Hodge

I was clearing out old voicemails recently because someone told me my mailbox was full. There, at the bottom, was the Blocked Messages folder. I opened it to find the same three messages, the last one dated 12/16/2017. That left me curious. I did a quick search of my inbox and found the last email from him was on 12/26/2017. I was curious what made him finally stop.

Something tugged at me. I wonder what he’s up to these days. Could he have finally gotten himself together and moved on?

I did a quick Google search on his first and last name and came up with several hits, but not him. I thought that seemed odd. He didn’t like social media, but he should at least have a LinkedIn profile because of the type of work he does.

I did another Google search using his full name. There was one hit. An obituary. 

I stared at the screen, stunned. I read and re-read the content. This couldn’t be real. “…died in his home.”

It was a Tuesday when I stumbled onto the news, and I had a very busy work schedule that week so there wasn’t time to process my feelings immediately. I had planned to take Thursday off, but had a full day of activities that day and didn’t want to be a wreck on Friday. So I filed it away as best I could. That’s right, I was scheduling time to grieve. We do what we must.

For the next few days this new bit of reality continued to swirl around in my head. I allowed myself to feel very little emotion about it, but every time I would pause – or when I would wake up in the middle of the night to roll over (yes, I wake up for this) – I would feel the gut-punch echo of the words “…died in his home.”

A day or two into this, facebook presented me with a memory. It was not something directly about him, but it was an event that I remembered as happening shortly after I moved out. It had been nine years. So why was I feeling this strongly?

Friday evening finally arrived. It was grieving time. I sat on my yoga mat and talked to him. I said I was sorry. I said I had hoped he would find strength to work through things. I said I was sorry I hadn’t been able to help him. I told him I missed what we had had in the beginning of our relationship. I cried. I punched my fists into a cushion and shouted. After exhausting myself, I laid on my mat and stared. 

In the three weeks following my discovery of his death I found myself in a funk off and on…mostly on. I didn’t want to talk on the phone with my friend, who by the way both lost her father and broke up with her boyfriend in the two months prior. I felt some guilt about not being there for her, but I needed to be alone. 

Nine years. That is the marker for when I moved out of our three year live-in arrangement. I had loved him dearly, but his alcoholism proved to be too much for us to overcome. I tried so many approaches to encourage him to help himself, but he was not interested. He didn’t have a problem, I just needed to lighten up. I didn’t recognize my behavior as codependency. He was an alcoholic and I was a victim.

Toward the end of our live-in relationship he would pass out in his chair once or twice a week – sometimes more often. He’d wake up after a bit and resume whatever conversation we had been having before he had passed out. In his opinion we were having playful banter; I felt it was obnoxious and harrassing, though I never used those words with him because my life path had taught me there were boundaries I should not cross if I wanted to be safe. 

We had come together fast and intensely. We had an extreme physical chemistry from the start, and we connected on so many other levels. I heard him and I knew he heard me. I felt loved unconditionally for the first time in my life. 

I knew from the beginning that he liked to have a drink now and then, but I didn’t see it as excessive. He always seemed to be in control. It wasn’t long after I moved in that it became clear he had a problem. Once his secret was out, all bets were off.

The first time I was locked out of the house while he was passed out drunk, I told him I was leaving. But he had been so repentant the next day and actually promised, for the first time, to quit drinking. So I stayed. He lasted maybe three weeks. The second time I was locked out I didn’t tell him I was leaving, I just started making plans.

There had been so many good things about our relationship…when he was sober. He was the person I could fall into…when he was sober. He was the kindest, most reasonable man I’d ever been in a relationship with…when he was sober. He often said he’d lie down on railroad tracks for me. For all these reasons, even after I moved out, we continued to stay in touch. 

My codependency – my need to be loved wholeheartedly – allowed us to come back together a few times over the next four years. He only did his heavy drinking at home, so it would appear to me that he was doing better. Each time we’d come together we went through the same cycle: 

  • We would start with an agreement that we’d just be friends. 
  • I would give in to his promises that he had everything under control and lean into him once again. 
  • He would resume drinking heavily.
  • Somewhere in the timeline there would be a beach trip, where I would get to relive the experience of living with an alcoholic.
  • I would push back and say we had to keep it just friends or I was out.
  • He’d agree to that, but then would become more and more demanding of my time.
  • I would push back again.
  • He would drunk email or voicemail me to tell me how heartless I was.
  • I would break off contact completely. 
  • A month or two later he’d reach out again, promising once more that we could be just friends. He just really wanted me in his life.

By the time I shut the door for good his mental faculties had degraded significantly. I could see the  changes in his personality and in his ability to think rationally. He was moving further and further into a darkness that I couldn’t understand. And I felt less and less safe.

In June 2015 I blocked his number. He would still leave me voicemails, but I wouldn’t know about it until I emptied my mailbox. He would still email, but I wouldn’t respond. In December 2017, he emailed to tell me he’d straightened himself out and maybe we could make a go of it. I finally knew better. I didn’t respond. 

He passed in May 2018. “…died in his home.” I’m pretty sure I know what happened.

So why had I felt so bad about the news after all this time? I was sad that he wasn’t able to move on with his life and find happiness in some way; that he wasn’t able to see rock bottom and recognize it was time for long lasting change. And I’ve pondered my role in all of this. It was his disease, but I played a part in his emotional health because I allowed us to come back together over and over again until he could no longer see past a life with me. I know I didn’t directly cause his death, but I have wondered if he might have seen his way through this if I had just walked out the door and not looked back. Eventually I made my peace with the understanding that, even if he had moved on from me, he would still have kept drinking. It’s what he was wired to do.

While we’re on the topic of grieving, I’ll mention that I lost a dear friend in January of this year. It was a relapse, and the cancer took her quickly. Nobody expected she wouldn’t get through it, most of all her. I’ve no doubt the loss of my friend added to the weight of this more recent loss.

It is said there are several phases to the grieving process. According to the Healthline website, the five stages of grief are:

They also say, “Not everyone will experience all five stages, and you may not go through them in this order.” I would add that you may experience grief differently each time. 

When I lost my friend, I found myself wandering the house in a daze for the first week or so. I would walk into a room and just stand there, staring and swaying. It was like I was lost. I had just had dinner with her a week before she went into the hospital for the last time. Her spirits had seemed high and she had planned to go back to work part-time the following week.

My current grief is different. It is a haunting of my soul. He was supposed to be the person I lived out the rest of my life with. We had each been married twice before and the idea of another marriage never came into play for either of us. I just wanted him and he wanted me. It was simple. It should have worked. But it didn’t.

I think I’ve been hanging out in denial over my friend’s death ever since it happened in January. I only saw her every couple months or so and we didn’t chat on the phone or text much. But each time I saw her was memorable. A part of me still expects her to call me one day and say, “Hey Mel! I’m going to a freak show this weekend. Come with me – it’ll be a blast!”

As for Eric, my emotions pinballed between denial, depression, and anger. Some days felt like a heavy grey blanket of sad. He may have passed two years ago, but to me it’s new. And it still hurts.