My husband and I drive down a highway, David in the driver’s seat, me on the passenger’s side going through the preset radio stations for the second time. A large four-door white truck cuts David off in the middle lane. David speeds up behind him. He tailgates the truck for at least a mile, so close to the truck’s bumper, I can see the truck driver’s brown eyes through his rearview mirror. I tell David to stop, but he pretends not to hear me. He then jerks into the left lane and speeds by the truck, making sure to glare the driver down and flip him off. I tell David to stop once more, to keep his eyes on the road, to stop playing games.
“Why don’t you ever let me play?” he says.
"Because people die in car accidents!" I snap.
I don’t expect my voice to get so loud, and neither does he. We drive in silence for a while, but I feel the echoes of my words reverberating off the windows, the door handles. I think about what I’ve said—the stark reality of it—and start to panic. Tears well up in my eyes and I can’t force them back.
“I’m sorry,” David says softly, and reaches his hand to grab mine. I pull away.
It's been 13 years since the final days of my family’s vacation in the Azores turned into a nightmare. Thirteen years since a drunk driver took a turn too sharply; since a guardrail sliced my father’s chest in two. Thirteen years since his body was transported to Boston, to a lonely spot where his coffin would go underneath the earth, the grass, the stone.
During the first few years after the accident, I got through the five stages of grief like a rocket—turbulent, explosive, and with flying colors.
I clung to denial with a fervor only the shock of an unexpected loss can create. So many people seemed to disappear—close friends who I saw every day. I made excuses for their absence the same way I pretended my father’s disappearance was only temporary.
I burned with anger. I was angry that my father was dead, but I was angrier at my family and friends for constantly telling me things would get easier. Everyone told me the funeral would be the hardest day, but that was far from the truth. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried so much I discovered a whole new meaning to the word cry, one that had nothing to do with tears, but deep guttural howls from my insides. There was nothing that would fill the hole I felt deepening inside of me, though I tried. Food, sleep, alcohol, drugs—all failed. There was only one thing I thought could make me feel better: sex. I went in search of it by cornering ex-boyfriends and making fleeting new ones. The sex always started out well. It was hot; I was hot. I was feeling. But in the moments after orgasm, I’d be overwhelmed with this crushing emptiness, and there was nothing I could do but cry and scream and scrunch my body until all the hurt was gone.
Over the next few months, I watched my family crumble around me. My mother clung to her faith as she sank deeper into the recesses of our living room, watching Portuguese soap operas while clutching a rosary between her hands. My younger brothers found their own obsessions—one finding solace in video games, and the other escaping into his art. I fixated on success.
I’d read a study that showed a correlation between having an increased chance of success when faced with a parent’s death early on in life. That was my motivation, my bargaining chip. If I could just get one more degree, one more award, or one more publication, I would feel better.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t.
When all the accolades I acquired weren’t enough to suppress the devastating gloom, I sank into a depressive state riddled with anxiety. I had always been an anxious person, but my first-day-of-school jitters had slowly transformed into nauseating panic attacks so overwhelming I couldn’t catch my breath. A slew of therapists later diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder and an acute form of post-traumatic stress disorder. For years I received cognitive behavioral therapy and an annual renewal for antidepressants.
I still live with the fact that I’m one of the one in five people who develop a psychiatric disorder because of a parent’s death—a disorder that consistently infiltrates my life.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. The shining moment on the horizon when we the bereaved are finally allowed to get back to “normal.”
But for me, and all those who have experienced such loss, there is no normal. Just a new reality. I accepted the fact that I was the “me” in the “It could never happen to me” scenario long ago. I decided to overtake death as it had overtaken me by grabbing life by the throat and never letting go. I stole ruby red lipsticks from drugstores with no intent of wearing them; I conquered my fear of roller coasters and actually put my hands in the air; I jumped off a 30-foot cliff into a punching ocean; I found an enduring love with my husband and found a rewarding career as a teacher and a writer. I accepted my new normal.
But 13 years later, my body and mind still find ways to fight this new reality with unstoppable force and fortitude. Most businesses in the United States have some type of bereavement policy spanning a maximum of five days for the death of an immediate family member, but I’ve yet to experience such an expiration date. It’s been well over a decade and there are still days I feel just as sick and lost over my father’s absence as I did the day of his funeral. I’ll be 31 in just a few short weeks, and I still can’t be home alone for more than a few hours without unraveling as easily as a ball of yarn. The silence of solitude leaks into my skin, and it reminds me of my father’s absence—how my family’s home went from one filled with people and noise and laughter to one filled with the quiet, fraught tension of longing. I curl onto the cold tiles of my kitchen floor and wail like a wounded animal.
My husband has often come home and found me like this. He does well to try to get me off the ground, but what he doesn’t know—and perhaps never will until he experiences such loss of his own—is that I've lived for so many years in such sorrow that when it comes, I welcome it like an old friend. Even with all my work in therapy, I still live with the fact that I’m one of the one in five people who develop a psychiatric disorder because of a parent’s death—a disorder that consistently infiltrates my life. My mind is a minefield I’m constantly navigating. Because my father died at someone else’s hands, I trust no one: Will I be safe in this person’s car? Can I be sure this airplane won’t go down when I’m on it? If I go on vacation, how can I be confident I’ll come back home?
My grief used to hang above me like a foreboding cloud, but now it walks beside me in stride, keeping me grounded.
The most difficult question I’m facing now is whether pregnancy is a viable option for me. There is a mild-level risk when mothers choose to continue antidepressants while pregnant. But what of those mothers who choose to forgo their medication? I don’t ever want to go back to weekly panic attacks, or when something as trivial as buying the wrong cheese left me shaking in sobs. I don’t know how much of my own mental sanity I’m willing to sacrifice. It’s terrifying to think how much one traumatic event has controlled so much of my mind and body for over a decade.
I’ve spent years trying to push my grief away, desperate to move past the trauma that it came from. But I’ve learned to love its presence. Five years ago I spent over half an hour in the Hallmark aisle of my local drugstore looking for a Father’s Day card until I realized I didn’t need to be there. I dropped my basket of items and ran out of the store, panicked that my brain could play such a trick. My grief used to hang above me like a foreboding cloud, but now it walks beside me in stride, keeping me grounded.
These days it’s much harder to imagine my father being alive when just six months ago I walked down a very long aisle in a pretty white dress with no one by my side. There were plenty of other important people in my life ready to take my father’s place, but perhaps for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to deny or accept my father’s absence. I simply wanted to walk forward with my forever partner in life—grief.
Sarah Chaves is a writer and educator in Boston. Find her on Instagram @sarita_chaves.
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