Four Decades Later
Experiencing loss then and now
For the sake of privacy, the individual interviewed for this piece has chosen to stay anonymous. All names in this piece have been changed to protect the identity of the individual and his family.
Over this past year the world has experienced a rapidly increasing death toll unseen in recent generations. COVID-19 and its effects on the public, both physically and mentally, has proven to be one of humanity’s largest tests of faith, hope, and endurance.
As communities around the world are faced with the abrupt loss of nearly three million loved ones, millions of more individuals must face the reality of death and what that means for them physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I recently interviewed an individual who, unfortunately, is all too familiar with the pain and struggle of losing a loved one so suddenly.
The year was 1976, and at 14-years-old, John lost his father, Robert, to a massive heart attack.
Before John’s life changed forever, by all means, it had been a typical Sunday. It was the day before John’s third day of high school, and, that night, there had been a family dinner where John’s father had tried to convince him to try out for basketball instead of football, because Robert was worried about the injuries John could sustain playing football. John found this ironic since his dad had been a football star in his heyday.
After dinner, John went to the movies with two of friends to see “Monty Python’s Jabberwocky.” The three of them were walking home from the theater when one of the friend’s parents drove up to them and told John that something had happened to his father and that they needed to get John home.
Pulling up to his house, John knew that his father was dead just by the emotions at the scene. “All the neighbors were out. Mom was out front crying, and I don’t even remember who told me, but I got out of the car and was told my father had died.”
By the time John was told about his father, Robert’s body had already been placed in the back of an ambulance at the scene. The friend’s father who had picked John up from the movie theater also happened to be the chief medical examiner for the city. He told John’s mother not to worry about anything and that he would go with the body to the hospital.
Later, John learned that his father had experienced a massive heart attack while watching TV. He had been found by John’s younger sister, his mother, and his oldest sister who was training to be a nurse and had tried to revive Robert, but to no avail.
Robert had been a WWII veteran who served in Europe and married late in life. He was a father of four and was always very present in his children’s lives, especially when it came to their sporting events. John recalled that his father was an extremely driven individual, who had been a high achiever in sports himself when he was younger. He taught John to be just as driven; to set goals; to engage with people; and as a disciplinarian of the house, he also taught John what not to do.
Unlike his father, John vowed that he would never get physical with his children as his father had with him and his siblings. “It could have been past life experiences or just how his mind worked, but he definitely had moments of rage. None of his brothers, my uncles, were like that.”
After his father’s death, there were very few resources for John to turn to for help in restructuring his life without his father in it. His grades suffered significantly his freshman year of high school, but his uncle would spend a lot of time with him. “He told me, you know, you’ve been through alot, but you have to pull yourself back up.” This pushed John to focus on taking that next step forward in the attempt to keep himself from becoming stuck in despair. “I did feel hopeless about my situation, but I always found the next step to get out of it. It wasn’t always the right next step, but it got my mind working.” There was always a next step. Whether it was throwing himself into sports, leaning on his friends for support and moral guidance, or more unhealthy coping mechanisms like experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
When asked how his father’s death affected his mental health, John said “Emotionally, I had to grow up very fast.” He described it as “becoming an adult at 14.”
There were far more responsibilities and challenges he was faced with as he grew into his teen years. One challenge was an epilepsy diagnosis. This was a major challenge for John as it affected his ability to play football, which had always been a cathartic activity for him. His epilepsy made him feel flawed. Not only could he not play sports, but his doctors couldn’t find a cause for the sudden onset of the condition. At the time this made John even angrier with his life, but John admitted that in retrospect there are not always answers for everything. Sometimes, the answer lies in just living and dealing with the problem in the healthiest way possible.
That being said, John said he wished there had been resources for him when he was young. “I try to live life without regret, because I am who I am through these events. But I know if I had been taught better skills as a child, I could’ve come through it healthier.” When asked what a mental health discussion sounded like when he was a child, he replied “there was none.” Things like mental breakdowns and depression were unacceptable conditions. Things like that were kept a secret, even if everybody knew someone was suffering. If someone were to get treatment, the knowledge of that was not shared.
When asked: “What outdated beliefs did you have as a child that have changed today?” John admitted that he used to believe drugs to be a part of the mental health stigma. “I used to believe drugs covered up the problem, rather than treated it.” He also shared that while solving one’s problem on their own used to be a commendable attribute, that he knows now that a mental health condition can be too much for one person to try and fix on their own. That it is better to unashamedly receive professional help. John even admitted that if he was offered therapy today, he would accept it. “Yeah, why not. I’m always looking for ways to improve myself.”
To say mental health awareness has come a long way since the 1970s is an understatement. Today there are more resources than ever for those suffering. In the past year we’ve lost more loved ones than we’d like to think about, and the mental and emotional toll that takes on those who are left is a real and serious problem. John struggled through many challenging obstacles as a young man because there were few people and places he could turn to that could give him professional-grade help. Follow this link for 60 digital mental health resources.
A lot has changed in the past 40 years, but what hasn’t, is the human experience of grief and despair. While the resources I’ve shared in this piece are a great start for anyone experiencing mental and/or emotional turmoil, it is important to remember that you need to reach out to someone else. We are only human, and to be human means many times, we have to deal with a lot of really difficult life experiences. I’m here to tell you that you are not expected to make it through those on your own. Just like John, we are susceptible to falling into unhealthy behaviors if we are not given the right guidance. There are people ready and willing to help others, we just have to be willing to ask and ready to take that next step towards recovery.
Written By Katy Egan