Grief Shamed and Buried

If only I had known that none of this was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

Within the first year of Mom and Dad’s divorce, all of the loss became too much to bear. Unable to withstand the pressure any longer, my strong façade collapsed. Baring my soul to Dad—to anyone—for the first time, I expected to receive understanding, compassion, and Dad’s trademark bear hug and kisses. Instead, Dad stood frozen in the middle of the living room, his black eyes blazing as the dam of my pent-up grief burst in a torrent of words and tears.  

“You can sit around on your dead ass feeling sorry for yourself, or you can decide to make something of yourself! This is weakness.” Dad’s face contorted with disgust. “And I hate weakness.”

My stomach clenched as if he’d punched me in the gut. Shocked to composure, tears I dared not shed lodged in my throat, as I stared at this stranger before me. Dad had never shamed me for expressing my feelings before. He was the one I could talk to about anything. But it was now clear that that was no longer the case. I’m bad for crying, for making Dad upset. I shouldn’t have said anything, I thought to myself. I had broken my vow to myself the night Mom left with Stevie to not burden Dad with my pain or problems.

Wary, I kept my eyes fixed on Dad as I wiped my face dry with the back of my hand, determining to never again express my pain over the divorce, or any forbidden feeling, to Dad. But how was I to know which ones were forbidden?

I need to make something of myself. Whatever that meant. But I’d figure it out. I had to. I believed that my survival depended on pleasing Dad so he would still love me and not leave. Aside from that, I adored Dad and wanted to please him and make him proud of me. My desire to please Dad and my sense that my survival depended on doing so entangled together like Silly String. This moment heralded the decades of my hiding behind an unflappable, competent, smiling mask, disguising the ever-present terror, confusion, loneliness, and grief that swirled inside me.

From that point on, I grieved only when alone, the last time when I was about fourteen. While walking home from school one day, I saw a childhood friend laughing and chatting with her mother as they drove up Main Street. Although Mom and I had never shared a close connection, I longed for one. I barely made it home before breaking down. Consumed by grief and not expecting Dad home for another four hours from work, I didn’t hear him come into the house. His appearance in the doorway to my bedroom jolted me back to my senses but too late to hide my tears. Genuine concern registered in his warm, cocker spaniel black eyes.

“What’s wrong, honey bun?”

Recognizing pre-divorce Dad, I felt safe telling him the truth. “I wish I had a relationship with Mom like other girls have with their mothers.” A fresh stream of tears ran down my face. I felt so relieved to let everything out, to finally be heard.

But Dad’s black eyes now glittered like an angry Doberman pinscher. “There’s no point bawling over something that neither one of us can do anything about!” His roar filled the tiny room. He then spun on his heel and stormed away.

In hindsight, I now see that Dad, too, was drowning in grief over the divorce, and that his response to his pain was work, work, and more work—hence, the “make something of yourself” declaration—in an attempt to fill the gaping black hole he carried inside. I suspect that my unhindered expression of grief triggered Dad’s grief, along with his powerlessness to fix or change the situation, both of which he was trying so hard to keep a tight lid on, resulting in his rage.

But my fourteen-year-old self didn’t have that awareness. I stared, frozen, at the empty doorway as the undeniable reality stared back at me: I had nowhere to go with my grief. I didn’t dare alienate Dad. He was all I felt I had left in the world.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that Dad wasn’t all I had left in the world and that I wasn’t alone in my grief. If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that God was with me every single second and that I could pour out my grief to Him at anytime, without restriction or reservation.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that none of this—Mom’s rejection, Dad’s pain and rage—was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

But I didn’t know any of that. So, while Dad was burying his grief with work, I buried mine through pleasing and taking care of Dad, Stevie, and, as time went on, everyone else around me. However, in doing so, I was abandoning myself.

I didn’t know that either.

The King and I

Elvis Presley, the noted King of Rock and Roll, was like a member of our family. Mom worshipped him and owned several of his albums and 45s that I wore out singing and dancing to when I was little. And we never missed his movies on TV. Both of us planted ourselves firmly in front of the set, Mom on the couch, twirling a single lock of her long blond hair, and I on the floor on my belly, not budging an inch lest we miss a glimpse of our sultry heartthrob. I melted as he crooned to one of his dewy-eyed ladyloves, envying the dazzling beauty while wondering what it was he saw in her. To me, they didn’t hold a candle to his gorgeous wife, Priscilla. I believed she was the luckiest woman on the planet, and I often daydreamed about her idyllic, fairy-tale life with the King. The birth of their little princess, Lisa Marie, completed the fairy tale.

The similarities between Dad and Elvis were eerie. With birth dates only one day apart—Dad’s on January 7 and Elvis’s on January 8—they were both Southern born and bred—Dad in Kentucky and Elvis in Mississippi. Both of them had jet-black, slicked-back hair, had a thin, wiry build in their youth, and stood close to the same height. Dad and Elvis adored and were adored by their mothers, doted on their daughters, and were divorced from the love of their lives within months of each other—Dad from Mom in June 1973 and Elvis from Priscilla in October 1973.

The similarities didn’t stop there. Gossip rags had it that Elvis suffered from severe depression after his divorce from Priscilla, as did Dad after his divorce from Mom.

“I can understand Elvis’s not wanting to go on anymore after losing his wife and daughter,” Dad said to me as we were driving in his car sometime in early 1974. He looked at me, his black eyes wide with panic. “I wouldn’t want to go on if I lost you!”

His desperation was palpable in the tiny, enclosed space. I stared back at him, wide-eyed, as my heart jackhammered in my chest. “Dad! Don’t say that!”

“I’m serious! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you! I couldn’t handle that!”

“Dad, stop it! I’m only thirteen years old!”

“Well, I can’t help it! I couldn’t handle it!”

“This is way too much pressure for me, Dad! You’re making me responsible for whether you live or die!” Now I was panicked. I felt the walls closing in, sucking all the oxygen out of the car. I grabbed the car door and breathed deeply, trying to get my bearings.

“Well, that’s how I feel! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you!”

In that moment, I realized in the most visceral sense that not only had I lost my mom a few short months earlier in the divorce, I had also lost the dad I had prior to it—stable, calm, and strong, the one I depended on for safety, security, and love. Now he was depending on me, his child, to be stable, calm, and strong for him, the one he depended on for safety, security, and love. At thirteen years old, I was now the parent to the only parent I had left. This was all too much to take in–all too much to bear.

Trying to make Dad’s life easier was one thing, but feeling responsible for whether he lived or died was another. Now I not only needed to fend for myself physically and emotionally, as Dad had escaped into working twelve- to thirteen-hour days, I also had to keep Dad afloat emotionally. I had to be okay so he would be okay. As I saw it, both of our lives depended on that. Such a heavy burden on my young shoulders.

Turns out, Priscilla’s life with the King wasn’t such an idyllic fairy tale after all. And four years after their divorce, their beloved Lisa Marie, only nine years old, lost her dad to a tragic heart attack after years of addiction to prescription drugs.

I recall in vivid detail where I was on August 16, 1977, when I heard the news. My friend Debi was at the helm of her dad’s pickup truck and I was riding shotgun. The afternoon sun was blazing through the windshield, cooking the cab, as we headed across the railroad tracks on Main Street of our small hometown in northern Illinois, the radio blaring. Suddenly, the music stopped mid-song, and a stunned male voice announced, “Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, died today at the age of 42.” Debi’s jaw dropped, and I shouted, “Noooo!” as I turned the volume higher, hanging onto every detail yet unable to process what I was hearing. There had to be some mistake.

But there wasn’t. Elvis Presley was dead. Time stood still as Debi and I inched down Main Street, mute from shock.

I shivered despite the August swelter. Lisa Marie had lost her doting, adoring dad, who reminded me so much of my own. My worst fear, losing Dad, was staring me square in the face in broad daylight as if in a spotlight. If Lisa Marie could lose her larger-than-life dad, I could lose mine too.

Not only was Dad clinging to me for dear life, I was clinging to him too. Neither of us knew we were grasping at the wrong lifeline.

That’s the nature of addiction. And ours was codependency.

“Neither of us knew we were grasping at the wrong lifeline. That’s the nature of addiction.”

Scrambling

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had begun running.

In what seemed like overnight, Dad took a second job, leaving at 6:30 a.m. and not getting home until 8:00 p.m. during the week. He explained that he had no choice, as he was buried under a mountain of debt from the addition to and complete renovation of our home the year before and now the legal bills from the divorce and child support payments. As Dad became more and more focused on work–ultimately becoming a principal in the business of his second job–I became more and more focused on Dad and Stevie. As a natural nurturer, I worried myself sick about them and hovered over them, trying to ensure their health, comfort, and safety, as well as trying to hold together what semblance of family I had left. What I didn’t realize until four decades later was that as long as I kept my focus on them I was able to run away from my own grief, confusion, terror, and panic over the implosion of my home and family and the resulting abandonment of both of my parents. We were all running away: Dad through his work, Mom through her new relationship, and I through obsessing over and mothering Dad and Stevie.

Dad and I had always been close. He was a constant physical and emotional presence to me, even, and especially, through the divorce. But after the divorce everything changed. Prior to the divorce, Dad was home by 5:15 p.m., Monday through Friday, and home all weekend, available and game for fun things like watching the silly movies of W. C. Fields, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy, or to just hang out, cutting up and acting just as silly as the movies we watched. But after the divorce, in addition to getting home later in the evenings during the week, Dad worked at his second job every other Saturday, when we didn’t have Stevie. When he was home, he was often tired and preoccupied. Still he was far more available to me than Mom was, whom I hardly ever saw or talked to, and when I did, we were at each other’s throats. This was not a new development between Mom and me. We had been adversaries for as long as I have memory. The divorce only made it a million times worse, particularly because I blamed her for it and she targeted me when enraged at Dad. Now Dad was only home long enough to eat dinner, shower, shave, and sleep, and Sundays were for grocery shopping and other errands. With three-quarters of the furniture missing, leaving the newly renovated living room downright cavernous, our house was the only constant that remained of my former life.

For a while, I went to my grandma Rose’s when Dad was working, but I stopped when Grandma’s and my bitter fighting over Mom and Dad’s divorce escalated. She blamed Dad and I blamed Mom, and neither one of us could let it go or were willing to give an inch. Unable to stand any longer the incessant strife between Grandma and me, I refused to go back.

Being home alone was not as much of an adjustment as I had thought. After the daily, ongoing combat between Mom and Dad during their divorce–they lived together until the day it was finalized–and the hostility between Grandma and me in the months that followed, the silence and tranquility of our tiny house on West Fourth Street, now my refuge, was balm for my traumatized, battle-weary soul. At twelve years old, I had discovered the blessed peace of solitude.

“Focusing on others enabled me to run away from my own grief, confusion, terror, and panic.”

Our Journey Begins . . .

And continues . . . One. Day. At. A. Time. That slowly. That deliberately. That mindfully. I need this reminder, and this discipline, every single day, and perhaps you do too. I hope that my experiences encourage you to begin–or to continue–living your life rather than focusing on or obsessing about someone else’s life or living the life someone else demands you to live from the identity someone else has assigned to you. I’ve been there. Oh boy, have I.

Long before the shocking discovery of my real identity and throughout the painstaking recovery of my true Self in Christ, my quest has been and remains this:

  • Be present
  • Be real
  • Be kind

So, please, join me. None of us can do this alone, and I would love the company.