I spent the Christmas after Dad died house and cat sitting for my friend Barb. Her home — a quaint adobe with Zen landscaping and energy — seemed like a good place to convalesce. One of her cats, Alley, was shy, but always loved on me — I fit her attention criteria. So here I was at home with a cat while the humans were away for the holidays; I hadn’t even pondered whether I would be alone or not — I didn’t care enough to have that figured out.
Then Paolo, a dear Italian friend, phoned, “Ciao bella! Come va? I am here!” His voice and accent were a lovely distraction. Paolo had visited California before and made many friends — he insisted on spending Christmas with me and making authentic lasagna and tiramisu. We went to the grocery store — Paolo grabbing all he needed. “Don’t you need cheese?” I asked. Paolo just laughed and shook his head and grabbed a stalk of celery.
That afternoon, before his new California boyfriend would arrive to join us for dinner, I moped while Paolo cooked.
I also invited my friend Chip, a photographer and traveler, to dinner. So there I sat, with three funny men — a photographer with great travel stories, an Italian and his lover — eating lasagna, drinking vino, and conversing in mostly English. There was no Christmas tree, no Christmas music, no stockings, no turkey, or apple pie — somehow, the absence of these holiday details was comforting and distracted me momentarily from the fact that the Cowboy was gone. This was how I handled Christmas Day.
My friends, who just wanted to say the right thing and offer condolences, would say, “Time heals,” but I wondered if that were true. I resisted laughing or doing anything that felt good or promoted good health and healing.
I also struggled to get out a sentence to answer the common question asked with a tilted head: “How are you doing?” I winced and couldn’t script a complete sentence; I often ended a thought or answer with “etc.” “Oh thanks for checkin’ in; I’m fine, ya know, just getting used to the idea, etc.” I knew what “etc.” meant; it meant accepting death and a permanent good-bye, and I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that just yet.
Three years after the Cowboy died, I decided to start classes in Alcohol and Drug Counseling (ADC) at Santa Barbara City College. By the time I registered, all of the classes were full. All but one — Family Dynamics. Perfect. With my used textbooks in tow, I skipped down the stairs from the multi-level parking lot –— it was too dark to see the water in the distance, but I breathed in the ocean air before I ran into the building, down the hall, and into a small classroom, seats for about 20. I didn’t want to be late.
“According to therapist Anne Wilson Schaef, codependence is ‘an addiction process lurking behind alcoholism,’” the professor said, each hand in the front pockets of his jeans. He paced once then paused so that all of us could think about what he had just said. I leaned forward at my desk and my eyes widened. I certainly was thinking about it and realized I was unconsciously nodding my head in agreement until a 20-something guy, with his bulky backpack, came rushing in sweaty and late.
Our professor, Gordon Coburn — everyone called him Gordy — handed out the syllabus.
“Refer to page three of the syllabus. This explains a written assignment — 30 percent of your grade that has been called the ‘hardest assignment of the entire ADC program.’ It’s an analysis of your own family system based on what you will learn in this course.”
I couldn’t wait for the next class.
For the next few months, every Monday night, I sat tall in my chair and looked straight ahead, raising my hand at every question or share. Gordy, in recovery for 25 years himself, stood at the front of the class as a professor and therapist — he had found healing and peace. I wondered what life would have been like if Dad had found recovery.
Later, I jumped in the discussion to ask, “So, being the family hero wreaks havoc on the codependent daughter — controlling, rescuing, following dysfunction rules, but considering the bright side, is it naïve to think that it makes her stronger in a good way?”
In the conclusion of the final assignment, I wrote:
“Much like a troubled child would create an imaginary friend to talk and play with, I survived my alcoholic family system by creating a personality and role that, I thought, protected me. I became a family hero and while it did save me in many ways by creating a bubble around the world I wanted to secure, it also caused stress and anxiety. Being a family hero made me feel like I was the parent and had to be in control; that was overwhelming and exhausting.
“Now, I have let go of the family hero persona a bit, but it is still there. The family hero role has brought me a long way in my life, much further than I thought, in fact. I am grateful that by instinct, I created a role that helped me survive the chaos among my family system. Ultimately it was the family hero role that wanted to get everything ‘perfect’ even my healing as an adult child of an alcoholic, so I learned about the disease, and separating the disease from the person, and that led to forgiveness, which has saved me.”
Gifts Received from Loss
It takes significant loss to get to that level of appreciation, no matter how consciously grateful you are before the forever-gone reality settles in to your brain. Of course I would rather have them — my best friend Kiley (who passed two months before my dad) and Dad — over the profound ah-ha, but this understanding is a crucial gift in healing and in living. In the beginning of my tragedy, I would not accept what was, but after three years of mourning, I started to accept my gift — the consequences of loss — which are intuition and insight for living and being.
The more willing I am to accept this conceptual gift, the more it continues to give; I don’t just have acceptance — I experience acceptance. With a significant trauma comes a profound comprehension of the paramount level of gratitude toward what was lost. This is an earned prize; it’s not a present. I didn’t asked for it; in fact, I didn’t want it because if I accepted it, I accepted the loss. However, there’s a turning point after the initial stages of grieving. Something in every day is a reminder that they are gone, but also that I am alive. So much of me is them — Kiley and Dad.
And now I experience my grief with grace; I feel the sadness and love with acceptance, surreal understanding, rich reflection, and awareness. I now function, conscious of these remarkable revelations only because my best friend and my dad passed away too soon. That was the heartbreak that pried open this place that I may have never journeyed through otherwise.