I anticipated sitting down to write a blog post this week about my first solo-and-sober international trip. Alas, the universe had other plans and decided to throw my family a nasty curveball:
A hospital bed.
A heart attack releasing its victim from the claws of cancer.
A newly minted widow reluctantly relieved from her duties as caretaker.
Two grown sons left, in an instant, without a dad.
Last Wednesday, my husband went to work, as usual. My daughter wore an Italian soccer jersey to Team Jersey Day at her camp. My son went to camp and then earned his long-awaited red belt in his Tiny Dragons MMA class. I went to my kickboxing class and pounded the crap out of the heavy bag, cursing cancer for bringing so much pain into so many lives but having no idea how much more painful our lives were about to become.
A normal summer day. And then my father-in-law passes away. And a normal day turns into one of those days when you’ll always remember where you were when you got that phone call. And life as we knew it will never be the same.
He was sick, but it was sudden. It always is.
Tears shed, travel plans cancelled, travel plans made. One suitcase is emptied and another is packed. One anticipated alcohol-free milestone turns into another: grief. My first grown-up experience grieving for a lost loved one without alcohol.
When I was in my early 20s, I lost my stepdad and both of my grandfathers over 18 brutal months. Those were the days when I was single and sharing an apartment with five other girls (and one bathroom, natch) on the Upper West Side. I spent every Monday night knocking back several frozen margaritas at a dive bar with my coworkers, then waking on Tuesday to run six miles around Central Park before work. Because I could do that then. Work not so hard, play hard, run hard. Repeat.
When I went through that horrible hat trick of losses, alcohol was in the picture and I’m sure I used it to cope. But I was also young and my relationship with alcohol was still relatively simple. It didn’t take the physical or emotional toll that I would experience a decade and a half later.
Cut to a decade and a half later.
I am so grateful to not have a choice to drink right now. With booze off the table and out of my brain, I have simply been a better mourner.
Here’s what I mean by that:
I have been present. I have felt the brunt of this loss – really felt it – instead of numbing myself to it. And what I’ve discovered is that yes, it hurts a lot when you really feel it. But it is also easier to find and appreciate the silver lining. He is no longer suffering. My mother-in-law is no longer burdened with his care (though of course she didn’t mind, it took a toll on her own well-being). He passed quickly and painlessly, during a week when many family members were in town visiting and could offer extra support.
I have been able to support my husband with energy reserves that would have been sapped by booze. At a time when I need all the energy I can get, I shudder to fathom how depleted I would have been if I were drinking. Depleted, and moody, and incapable of giving as much as my husband deserves me to give right now.
I have had amazing – sad and difficult but amazing – conversations with my kids about death and the soul and God. There is something beautiful and comforting in talking to kids about death – at least the way we discussed it. Very simple and high-level and just kind of lovely. “Gramps’ soul has left his body and has gone up to God. He has gotten to meet God! How cool is that?!” That kind of stuff. Talking to my kids after my husband told me the news over the phone was deeply sad, yes, but deeply beautiful too. I will never forget it.
I have been more compassionate and authentic with my mother-in-law. Because I am not drinking it is easier to choose curiosity over judgment. To observe in complete clarity how this family mourns – a style very different from my own family – and to innately respect their choices and support them as best I can. My mother-in-law is at the center of all of this and I don’t know if she can feel it, but I certainly feel that our relationship has deepened over the last several days. And I am so grateful for that.
No booze makes me a better mourner. There is beauty to be found in grief, if you can see clearly enough. And I can.