The hidden grief of losing a parent to alcohol and mental illness…

Social media handles: @cushkilvo @upfront_thepodcast 

It was a sunny, quiet day in November when the phone rang with the news of my Father’s passing. It’s funny how things that are expected can still hit you like a tonne of bricks. Somehow your body knows that in one small moment, with one last breath a chapter of your life is now closed. There is no time machine to send you back to say words left unsaid, and no longer an opportunity for shared memories. His death had felt both loud and quiet, simultaneously. His loss was huge in the spectrum of my life, but he’d slipped away from me slowly, long before his death. Despite my grief there was no cataclysmic shift in who I was as a person or who I would be moving forward. That had happened much earlier. 

Two years have passed and I still miss my dad, however, I have missed him for a long time. Since I was around the age of 15 (but perhaps long before) he’d ever so slowly and somewhat acrimoniously slipped away from me and loved ones. The rum and cokes, schooners, caffeine and nicotine had pickled him and preserved him much longer than I think even he had anticipated. The years of excessive alcohol use faded him, corroded him, and irrevocably changed him as a person. The damage of excessive and long-term alcohol use on the brain can be irreversible, leading to impairments in cognitive functioning, reasoning, and may cause long and short-term memory loss. Not to mention the extensive list of physical health issues that may arise. As with most addictions, a myriad of mental health issues can also come along with it; bringing me to the adage of ‘what comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ Like two co-conspirators whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears, egging each other on, pushing each other further and further to the point of no return.  

As the years passed by and the disease clutched him tighter in its grasp, he moved from the epicentre of my life towards the sidelines. It became increasingly difficult for me and loved ones to reach him both figuratively and literally; as if we were submerged underwater trying and failing to reach our catch. The waters can be murky and the path ahead unclear. We watched as the changes to his brain gradually skewed his logic, judgement, and overall view of the world and everyone in it. Pieces of him fell away over time, and the fragments that remained glimmered and offered hope that he’d go back to being the person we once knew and loved. The fragments became shards and the shards became particles until he was a silhouette of his former self. You grieve the loss of each piece as it falls.  

Alcohol dependency is a cruel disease, and a lonely one. Relationships become strained, family dynamics change and people drift away; either pushed away or of their own volition. In the wider community, addiction is highly misunderstood and judged. In many cases, like you, people don’t know what to say or do with someone who by all external appearances doesn’t appear willing to help themselves. It’s a difficult disorder for people to understand and “why don’t you just stop drinking?is a phrase too often heard by sufferers. The thing is, it’s not that simple, it can be a physical and mental dependence, and one that’s often difficult to stop. Once you are heavily dependent on alcohol you are often always susceptible to it’s grip, regardless of whether you give up your vice or not. 

Losing a parent to alcohol dependence and mental illness is a unique experience. You are often exposed to life’s complexities, intricacies and difficulties perhaps earlier than many of your peers. At times the roles can become reversed and the caregiver can become the cared-for. You feel the loss of not only what once was, but what could have been. You grieve now unattainable memories and also grieve relationships with a wider community that could have remained and flourished. And, last but not least, you grieve the relationship with your parent as it used to be. It’s hard not to feel anger and resentment at times as they drift further away from themselves. On the whole it’s just sad, and nobody wins. Your exterior may not show it, but you feel it. You feel the weight of the loss, and something intrinsic has shifted within you because of it.  

In the end, an extensive list of health issues took my father. However, it was the alcohol and subsequent health issues which took him from me slowly, with each frothy sip and each passing year.  

I’m now 35 and have already lost two loved ones (both from high socio-economic backgrounds) to alcohol related illness. A heavy dependence on an addiction disease which does not discriminate. Dad was warm, kind, exceptionally funny and fiercely intelligent. He had a fervent interest and empathy for people from all walks of life, and a heightened sense of social justice and morality which ultimately led him to his profession as a Barrister. He had a great sense of adventure and could catch a fish and ride a horse like a duck to water. He wasn’t perfect, but he was my dad. I now grieve for my daughter, he would have made her laugh and he now misses out on hearing it.  

Australia’s drinking culture is one of the worst in the world. According to a recent report¹, Australia tops the world in both the number of times people report getting drunk and in seeking emergency medical treatment for alcohol, yet we still hold up this thing as if it’s liquid gold. We cheer each other on for drinking, persuade each other and treat it as the highest of social lubricants. Heavy drinkers are often the popular ‘larrikin’ type we see so often. That is not to say you necessarily have to become a teetotaller and never have a glass of wine, however I think the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction, and some sort of equilibrium needs to be found, if not now…then when?  

Cite: 1. The Foundation For Alcohol Research & Education

Featured: Kim Kilvington

11 Comments

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  • Well done.. open and honest 😥

    By Margaret Lang
    |
    August 6, 2023
  • Good morning,

    As I sit at the busy stop waiting to catch a bus then a train to my granddaughters 4 th birthday after crashing my car and losing my licence for dui, I have been reading the article about losing a parent to alcohol and mental heath.

    I was reading about me. I was feeling every mm of pain and sadness for my daughter who has tried helping me for 15 years and now she has children I am missing out on their growth…. Speaking on FaceTime this morning and hearing my grandson speak his limited few words as he has just started talking…. It made me feel so so sad and I am still sad.

    I think this article as well as my daughters plea for me to get help and my sisters suggestion to go to rehab, I need to do that.

    It’s so hard and so lonely …. And drinking takes the emotional pain and menta thoughts of loneliness away for me.

    Thanks so much for the inspiration from such a sad but truthful article and one that has given me the courage to do what I need to do.

    By Ang
    |
    August 6, 2023
    • Ohhh my goodness, you are ready for lots of guidance. Check out Mandy Nolan’s podcaste or Shelley McDonald (Bris) Soberconnection (I think)!!! Inspirational & exciting approach. Also SITC Shanna Wahn …read or listen to her story- totally wonderful, strong & gives you hope- there is a way out. It’s not all “difficult, doom & gloom”…it’s quite the opposite, it’s letting go of something marketed as “your friend”. It’s not. It’s killing you, destroying your life of happiness. Grab onto your “inner courage.” 💕🤣🌺🦋

      By Rhonda J
      |
      August 7, 2023
  • Thank you for this honest share – so heartfelt and eloquent 🙏
    I’m sure your share will assist others.

    By LB
    |
    August 6, 2023
  • nice article!

    By james
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    October 6, 2023
  • Such a sad and awful loss for you Cush but so open and honest and hope it will help others x

    By Mary Rynders
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    November 13, 2023
  • Brilliant Cush, Kim would be proud of your take on him. I’ve just lost my eldest sister last week who was also my second mother. She slipped into the same stream as your dad. It s tough to watch it unfold when they’re around. Even tougher when they’re not and you still have the same picture, feeling and thoughts. I’m gutted I imagine you’re in the same boat. Bless them both. Uncheers. X

    By Snapper
    |
    November 15, 2023
  • I have never related to anything more, i have just lost my mum after 20 years or more of watching her slip away in to a person i no longer recognised, you put perfectly in to words exactly how i am feeling

    By Sarah
    |
    November 19, 2023
  • Amazing article Macushla. I worked for him for many years and he was a brilliant lawyer and a lovely person. So sad to read this.

    By Judith Murphy
    |
    December 20, 2023
  • I lost my only sister to alcohol 3 years ago .
    I still find it hard to believe she’s gone even though I was with her when she passed . The years leading up to her death where as you described it’s like she went a long long time ago and I was with a stranger when she physically died.
    Thank you for such a beautiful description of the pain you’ve went through it has helped me make some sort of sense of my own loss .

    By Bill Slimmond
    |
    December 28, 2023
  • This strikes such a chord with me. My father died nearly six years ago, and I am still grieving for the relationship that – but for alcohol – we would have had.

    By Sarah
    |
    January 9, 2024
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