My father was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD.
This was many years before PTSD was recognized as a treatable mental health condition, so he struggled alone, disappearing into the darkness of his illness while family and friends helplessly watched. I grieve for how he suffered, and how his illness affected our family. And I grieve for the little girl whose father came back from war a stranger, and for the relationship we were never able to have.
His illness took him away from me, from his family, and from the man he was before.
I went camping with him and my brother in the Ozark mountains in Arkansas when I was nineteen. I’d only seen him a few times since I was a young girl and was nervous in the days leading up to the trip.
We went white-water rafting in rapids filled with snakes, brown water moccasins slithering around the sides of the river, me so scared my hands hurt from gripping tightly to the sides of the raft so I wouldn’t fall into the murky water.
We went horseback riding. And again, I was afraid, but determined. My fear of disappointing him was much bigger than my fear of snakes and large animals. With a pounding heart, I climbed up on a beautiful brown mare, massive and strong. My father said, “Don’t let her know you’re afraid. She’ll feel it.”
So high, so far from the ground. She felt my fear.
“Debbie, what are you waiting for? Give her a little kick to get started.”
Wanting a connection with my dad I never had, wanting to please him, I gave her a kick, despite my fear. Despite not knowing how to control a creature so much bigger than I.
She took off, running wildly, veering off the path, and into the forest. From a distance, I could hear my father shouting out how to pull in the reins to control this magnificent force of energy who only wanted freedom. And for a moment that hung in the air, I felt like the horse. Flying through the forest, sweet taste of freedom.
It was exhilarating – until it was not.
Here’s what stays with me forever, that wild ride on the horse: frantically trying to hold onto the reins, useless in my hands, soon just clinging to her mane. Crouched and pressed against her, with my heart beating as fiercely as hers, I began to cry. Was I crying from fear? From wanting something from my father I could never have? From wanting the freedom I’d never had to just be me? We missed the trees and outstretched branches by inches, while the wind whipped wildly through my long wavy hair.
My father and brother finally galloped up next to me, secured the reins, and brought the mare under control. I dismounted with wobbling legs, trembling hands, and a heart now glowing with pride. I’d held on.
My father was gentle that day, as gentle as I’d ever known him. And he was nervous, like me. We wanted to connect, to simply spend time together that wasn’t thick with un-saids. But we didn’t know how. I always believed that one day we’d learn. Five years later, at the age of forty-four, he died suddenly from a heart attack. All the un-saids I’d hoped we’d resolve died with him. I was devastated.
I’ve grown through grief.
It’s taught me many things, given me gifts I never would have imagined. Compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. Helping me to see how it was his illness, not him, that ruptured our relationship. Helping me to find peace that the un-saids will never be resolved. I still feel sorrow because it is sad – what happened to his life and the pain his illness caused. But the bottom line is this: I’ve learned I have a connection with my dad that is deep and loving, and I always will.
Many of us have un-saids with loved ones who have died.
I hope, as you heal and grow through your own grief, you too will grow in compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. Not just for them, but for yourself too.
I never went horseback riding again. But if my dad were here, I’d do it again. Because he still has my back, like he did that day. I like to think he was proud of me for facing my fears. I like to think he’s proud of me now, for finding the freedom to just be me, to listen to my heart. I feel his love for me all the time. And he knows I love him too. Every time I look in the mirror I see him looking back at me. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.