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Journey to Mental Health Recovery

I Never Knew Grief Could Be This Complicated

Published 3 months ago • 7 min read

I’m more confused by my dad today than ever before. In the five years since he died, I’ve gone from feeling a searing agony to anger and everything in between.

He was a man of contradictions. He once told me I’d never understand him, and it took his death to realize he was right. Now, I can’t ask him questions. I may never know why he acted in certain ways, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Shocking news.

I was about to eat Chinese food when I got a call from my mum telling me my dad had died. It wasn’t a total surprise as he had first been diagnosed with heart disease way back in 2009. Six months earlier, he’d also fainted due to his heart problems, hit his head, and suffered a bleed on the brain.

They couldn’t treat his bleed because of his heart and vice versa.

Usually, my mum would go with my dad to medical appointments, but before he died, he insisted on going alone. We believe he knew he was dying and was given bad news at the hospital. He didn’t want to worry us, so he dealt with his impending death alone.

Yet, no matter how much you think you’re prepared for a loved one’s death, getting the actual news is like a stab to the gut. It winded me.

Thankfully, my dad died peacefully at his computer. He was an avid writer but hadn’t written for a long time due to his illness. In one last burst, he died with one hand on his mouse, trying to finish his latest book. It comforts me that he died doing what he loved.

The night my world changed.

My partner and I drove the short distance to my parents’ house. The street was illuminated in a pretty blue. To me, it was the ugliest color in the world, as I knew what it meant from my days as a police officer.

Two ambulances and a paramedic car blocked my parents’ driveway. Any dream I had that the emergency response was for someone else was crushed. I felt bad that I was wishing this pain on others.

I saw two paramedics outside laughing. I was angry then, but don’t hold it against them anymore. This was just another job to them. They would treat my dad, do the paperwork, go home to their families, eat dinner, and fall asleep watching TV. If they didn’t laugh, they’d crack like I did.

I ran inside and hugged my mum. She’d put a curtain over the living room door, so I didn’t have to see my dad’s body. I looked anyway. I felt like I needed to. If I didn’t see him dead, I might convince myself it was all a big mistake and that he’d packed his bags and moved to Scotland.

I saw him lying on his back on the floor. CPR had been attempted, but it was over now. After a certain point, my mum was glad they stopped. If he’d survived, he’d have likely suffered brain damage, and that was his worst nightmare.

I thought seeing him would be positive, but it made me feel worse. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and it superimposed itself on all my happy memories of him.

He’d died on the anniversary of my worst trauma. I resented that. Three hundred sixty-four other days to choose from, and yet he picked that one.

Once the professionals had finished their work, we were left to our grief. I cried until I felt like I’d run out of tears. I could barely console my mum through my own pain. My sadness had turned into flashbacks, and now the dead were haunting me on all sides.

I went back home, sucked up the pain, and tried to finish the Chinese.

The initial grief.

A searing grief consumed me for the next two years. Every little thing that reminded me of him was torture. I had no happy memories because they were all tainted by the image of him dead and by the fact that I’d never see him again.

He had to have a post-mortem because he died unexpectedly at home. That made it worse. I kept thinking that as long as he was intact, he might wake up in the mortuary. One day, I could see him knocking on the door like it had all been a mistake. Once they did the post-mortem and cut him up, I knew that was the end.

I don’t believe in any mumbo jumbo, but shortly after he died, my dad came to me in a dream. He put his arm around me and said he would always be around. I woke up “knowing” he was there. He told me he wouldn’t visit again, no matter how bad things got, because I had to learn to live without him.

Nights were the worst. I always go to bed late when my partner is already asleep. I mastered the art of silent crying. I laid there with the ceiling acting as a TV screen. Images from holidays and Christmases flashed through my mind. Every one of them was a torture — a vicious reminder of what I’d lost.

When sadness gives way to frustration.

In the last couple of years, as the acute pain of grief subsides, I’ve found myself asking many questions about my dad.

He loved me, but his expression of that love was problematic. The earliest example goes back to my school days when I suffered horrific bullying. Every day, I’d come home crying with rage. I’d confide in my mum, who would then tell my dad.

My dad would react angrily towards me for not fighting back. He offered to take me to boxing classes, get my hair cut, and change my dress style. I rejected all these offers. My life was chaotic and miserable enough. I didn’t want to join a sport where getting punched in the face was the norm. I didn’t want to change my identity.

Can you imagine how my dad would’ve reacted if I’d come home from school expelled for beating up one of my abusers?

I hated all my dad’s ideas on how to escape bullying. His anger toward me felt like a punishment for being weak. I felt bullied by the man who was lecturing me about bullying.

This is all strange enough, but it gets worse.

When I turned 17, I vowed to make the necessary changes. I was finally ready to stand up for myself. I started Karate and boxing classes, lifted weights, cut my hair, and changed my clothes. I did everything my dad had ever demanded of me.

Yet my dad was far from happy. He told me I’d never be a tough guy because I was too soft. He said he knew tough guys, and I wasn’t one of them. He said boxing and karate were taught in controlled environments, and they were irrelevant to street fighting.

When my dad was saying all this, I was desperately searching for my strength. You’d think he would have been overjoyed and encouraged me in every way he could.

So what did he want from me? Was he looking for something strong but not too strong, or soft but not too soft?

Even something as simple as driving a car was not safe from his confusing messages. While learning to drive, he told me I wasn’t cut out for it. Although the maniac who lived next door got his license, I “wasn’t practical.”

Actions do the talking. I passed my test, and he shut up about it.

When you’re desperate for real friends.

Trying to reinvent myself came at the same time as I started college (not to be confused with university in the UK). It was 1997, and I made some virtual friends on this new thing called the Internet. Other people my age were out underage drinking, fighting, and sleeping around. I preferred talking to people online.

My dad had other expectations.

“You haven’t got any real friends,” he told me while relaxing in the mountains of Scotland. Deep down, I knew I had no real friends, which is why his comments hurt so much. But he never appreciated that I was doing the best I could with the situation. He was always pushing and needling for more.

Too weak to become a police officer?

Spurred on by my dad’s comments about having no experience in fighting and being too sensitive, I joined the police.

I’d overcome bullying and had friends, girlfriends, and everything my dad had been pushing for. The problem was, he didn’t like the police. Instead, he wanted me to be a lawyer.

Nonetheless, he never tried to stop me from joining The Job.

I was policing a rough area. I’d come home excited about fighting criminals, yet my dad found a way to dismiss this. He said the police always have a backup, and no one attacks them. He said it wasn’t evidence that I was tough because my uniform acts as a shield.

By now, I knew there was no pleasing him. My dad had a dismissive answer for everything.

Eventually, I found out the police wasn’t my dream job after I suffered PTSD. I’d attended a double suicide where two teenage girls had jumped from a tower block.

In echos from my school days, my dad reacted to my PTSD with anger. One day he exploded and said he didn’t give a fuck about those girls. He holds the dubious honor of causing my first flashback through that comment. Of course, he was apologetic afterward, but that never affected his future behavior.

When I finally had the courage, I went out one day and visited the scene of the suicides. It had been years, and I’d avoided the entire city until that day. I returned home with a sense of calm and pride. My mum asked how it had gone, and my dad listened as I told them it had been difficult, but I was glad I’d done it.

My dad stood up and told me I was a “selfish little bastard” for going there and making them worried.

Evolving grief.

Before my dad died, we got closer. He admitted his illness had mellowed him, and my confidence had grown so that we could meet on a more even footing. Nonetheless, the pain of grief has partly converted to anger.

Anger at his inability to make himself understood despite spending a lifetime as a writer.

Anger at him being a constant obstacle to whatever problem I was facing.

Anger that there’s never been a crisis in my life that he didn’t make worse.

Anger for undermining me in everything except things HE wanted me to do.

So, while I still miss him, I don’t miss the belittling, the insensitivity, or the oppressive love.

Grief is more complicated than I ever expected.

Journey to Mental Health Recovery

Leon Macfayden

Schizophrenia and PTSD survivor sharing my journey to recovery. Join over 800 subscribers learning to improve their mental health. Every week, I share personal stories and effective tips to help you and your loved ones live the life you deserve.

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