Trigger warning: The following post has content around loss, sick family members, caregiving, grief, funerals and teen resiliency. The words used (dead, loss, cancer, hospital, anxiety attack) and specific situations discussed may trigger you. If your aware of your triggers and the following mentioned are triggering please move on to another part of GGH (IG or other blog posts) until you’re ready to read. Please take care of yourself when reading and after – message or call a friend to vent or share feelings if you need to. The intention of the post is to begin sharing my story and where I’ve been leading up to now.
I was 15 when my world turned upside down. I was 15 when I experienced my first significant loss – a friend killed in an accident. I was 15 when I would see my dad for the last time in our home before being taken out in an ambulance. I was 15 when I had my first anxiety attack and had a whole new sense of how powerful my mind and body were without knowing what to do with it. I was 15 when I would soon learn that a hospital would be home for 4 years and every weekend and holiday would be spent there.
I can still smell all of the smells that pass through and remember the feeling of all of the couches and chairs I’ve sat in. Teenage years are awkward and weird enough with the amount of shit that you have to navigate through and figure out. Wanting to make new friends and be liked, the power of your words, taking an interest in boys and playing games, failed relationships, figuring out your place in your friend group, constantly going out to keep up with the group because if you missed a night out you’d be out of the loop for weeks of inside jokes, betrayal and gossip, managing your time, extreme confidence fluctuations, what you want to be when you grow up, body changes and perception and understanding that every action has a reaction. For teens, that reaction was mostly a consequence. We were all learning, one way or another. All of that navigating was a lot of work and consuming – but it’s what teenagers are meant to grow through and also probably why they’re very sleepy and disconnected when they come home from school.
In the midst of navigating through high school, I had to understand a lot of concepts very quickly whether I liked it or not. Everything changed for me overnight. My mom was supporting and caring for my dad – from 9am-9pm I was parentless. I had to learn how to take care of myself or do my best version of it – emotionally, psychologically, socially and physically. My older sister at 18 would take the lead – our caregiver who we were lucky enough to have had a driver’s license at that point. True teamwork was built in these years and has carried us through since. Cooking, cleaning, making sure my younger brother,13, had everything he needed prepared for school, taking care of each other when we caught a cold and being there for each other in silence because we wouldn’t talk about what was happening until 10 years later. This is how I became good at reading people. We were paralyzed by these changes that were happening faster than we could process.
Through my mother’s stoic example, we all took on a survival mode mentality that would go on for years. It was us against everything – we needed to do what we needed to while my dad was in the hospital but of course believed things would be okay when he was healthy to come back. We had to find jobs to support our family, while also having perfect attendance and keeping up grades at school. I learned self-discipline and the value of a dollar really quickly and how you stretch a paycheck to pay the bills and groceries. We needed to keep going without a clear sense of future. For us, it was all about getting by right now. That’s how my dad was living his last years - hour by hour.
The four years ahead were nothing I could’ve possibly constructed in my head if you had forced me to give you the worst scenario that could happen to my awkward sad Grade 10 self. A typical 15-year-old may have said getting caught by their parents doing something they shouldn’t or having their boyfriend leave them and losing their friendships. My reality was that I would be attending 3 of my family members funerals in 2 weeks. I have a lot of spaces in my memories and certain things are blur but what I do know are these sharp and unforgettable living changing moments and how I felt like it was freshly sealed in a jar.
After years of being hopeful, having my faith completely shaken, putting all of our energy and celebrating small glimmers of hope, my father would die in April 2011 – one week before I had to write my first-year university exams. My grandfather passed 13 days before my father from a sudden lung cancer diagnosis. A very stoic, hardworking man who I never saw get sick even with the slightest cold in 15 years - he was non-stop. Thirteen days later, on the morning of April 13, my grandmother would pass from heart complications. We had a few hours to process that before being told by my mom that my dad would be breathing his last breaths.
My grandparents were immigrants and spoke broken English. I remember watching my mom leave late one night in the 4 years from being called by nurses to come in as there had been another emergency (which wasn’t unusual) with my dad. I watched the car drive away and my grandmother (who I had lived with all of my life) came behind me and said “we’re going to have a big cake to celebrate when your dad comes home.” I was so broken at that point; I knew things were bad but I shyly smiled and walked back to the basement (our floor of the house). As an adult now I can appreciate how she saw right through me when I thought I was doing such a great job of hiding how sad I was. She was just trying to make me feel hopeful and I love her for that moment looking back.
Thirteen months after half of the most important people in my household were dead, I lost another. My energetic, hilarious and loveable uncle passed from a painful and heartbreaking battle to pancreatic cancer. I had been watching my father deteriorate for years but watching this so freshly after my dad passed was on another level. Seeing the hopelessness in someone’s eyes when they know it’s over has probably been the saddest I’ve ever felt. My spirit was completely broken after a year of watching him in pain came to an end. Each month I’d see him he looked worse. I tried to remain hopeful and remember asking my mom frequently if he had gained any weight or if a new treatment was working. I can still hear him singing “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” at the top of his lungs around the house not caring who was around listening. I had lost the third and final male that had a major role in raising me.
My extended family is very large and loud (we’re Italian, we celebrate a lot and are always too close) but my connection with my uncle was unexplainable. At a young age he just got me, I knew it but I didn’t understand it. He saw in me what everyone around me overlooked. He helped me with homework, made me laugh when I didn’t even know that’s what I was needing, told me how beautiful I was when I felt so ugly and unnoticed and most importantly was always there. As an adult, I understand it all better now – we were so much alike – intellects, empaths and introverts who feel everything so deeply.
I had four significant and traumatic losses before I turned 20 and my life will never be the same.
Healing wasn’t in sight but the journey with grief would begin here.