‘I thought stepping away from that train was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Burying my husband was.’: Mom details family healing journey after losing husband to alcoholism

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of grief, loss, and alcoholism which may be upsetting for some.

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“My name is Annie. I’m a 40-year-old mother of two beautiful sons. W is 11 and E is 14. We are in recovery from the family disease of addiction. Alcoholism killed my sons’ father in July of 2020. And, though I’m not the drinker, it almost killed me too. My family has been pushed by unfair circumstances to the darkest and most painful of places.

Gravestone of husband who died of alcoholism
Courtesy of Annie Parker

This is our story. It’s a common story, but the type nobody really talks about out loud. It’s a story of trauma, devastating loss, survival, strength, growth, hope, and so much love.

I learned the hard way secrets keep people sick. It can feel really unsafe to talk about addiction and being married to an alcoholic out loud because of the giant stigma surrounding it. The truth of the matter is humans can be really judgy when they don’t quite understand something, especially when it has to do with mental health.

Oftentimes, the spouses and loved ones of alcoholics suffer silently while trying to maintain a picture perfect life to their friends, extended families, communities, and workplaces. That was the case for me.

Woman in black and white picture in alley
Courtesy of Robyn Christopher Photography

As a promise to my deceased husband, and in an attempt to help as many people as I can, I speak and write about our story and his passing whenever I have the opportunity to do so. My hope is, in reading this, anyone who is suffering in the ways we have will not feel so alone.

Processing Chris’ Loss

On July 2, 2020, my husband, Chris, was found dead on the bedroom floor of his childhood home. He was naked, all alone, stone cold, and in the fetal position with only his beloved dachshund by his side. The culprit? The disease of alcoholism. I think. Or was it me? His official cause of death was a heart attack due to prolonged use of alcohol. But sometimes the line feels a little blurry.

husband and wife
Courtesy of Annie Parker

You see, if I’m being completely honest, some days I’m not really sure if I killed my husband or not. I certainly have been accused of it by a handful of people. Family members and close friends have said painful things like, ‘You left him when he needed you most,’ or, ‘He gave up the moment you kicked him out.’

I wasn’t always as empathetic and understanding of my husband as I should have been. You know, back when I believed he was ruining my life by choosing the drink over me and our family. This is a common misconception among those who are married to alcoholics. It takes a long time to understand otherwise. I try to remind myself I was always doing the best I could at the time. I was young. I was suffering. I was undereducated about this disease. And I felt lost. These things don’t foster a healthy response to trauma.

The broken parts of me, the parts of me I’m still fervently trying to heal from the aftermath of living with an active alcoholic for a decade, often make me question it all. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s I am not the only wife, girlfriend, mother, daughter, or friend of an alcoholic who has struggled silently with guilt and suicidal thoughts.

late father and son
Courtesy of Annie Parker

Not too long before my husband was found dead, in October of 2019, I found myself standing next to an oncoming train, seriously contemplating taking one step forward and ending my own life. One step forward was all it would have taken to not just end my life… but more importantly, end my suffering. Thoughts of suicide? Me? The well-loved, beloved small town teacher? The loving and organized ‘has it all together’ mother and wife? Yes, me.

What had me standing next to that train that dreary Sunday morning could easily be blamed on my husband’s bad habits. But, it’s not really that simple. The reality is I was standing next to that train because I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to love myself. True, my husband was violently losing his battle with addiction. But, I can’t go around blaming him for all my problems. I’m not powerless; I do have a choice in my actions. Something I wish for you is that you love yourself enough to realize this too.

Obviously, I chose not to end my own life that day. I wish I could say I stepped back from that train because I found my self worth, but that wasn’t the case. I am a mother. Every single decision I make for myself comes from a place of doing what’s best for my boys. They saved my life that day. I used to think to myself stepping away from that train was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Well, it wasn’t, because burying my husband was.

Progression Of The Disease

Chris and I went to high school together in a midwestern town in Southern Illinois. He was born and raised in the same house he eventually died in 38 years later. I landed in our small town as a military brat. My parents eventually retired while living here, so this is where we have stayed. Chris and I were acquaintances in high school, but didn’t start a relationship until we were in our late 20’s. I had a two-year-old son from my first marriage which ended in a nasty divorce after an extremely tumultuous and unhealthy relationship.

wife and late husband
Courtesy of Annie Parker

Chris and I were married at the age of 27 and had our second son a year after. My oldest son’s dad didn’t come around much, so Chris and I raised the boys together as a family of four. It’s safe to say I ignored a few red flags early on in my relationship with Chris because he was everything my first husband wasn’t. He was kind, helpful, hard working, and he took care of me and both of my children in ways I deeply yearned for.

Chris drank a lot more than what I was used to, but definitely settled down and became a family man without hesitation. It wasn’t until our youngest turned two, when Chris lost his first job, I realized something was very wrong. Besides losing his job that year, he also got a DUI and wound up in the hospital after having a seizure and scary hallucinations. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was detoxing from alcohol. I had two kids under the age of five at home, a mortgage, and a sick husband. This would be the beginning of the rollercoaster of addiction for us.

Chris and I were married for 10 long and eventful years. During our marriage, he lost two jobs due to being intoxicated at work. He was hospitalized a few times, and went to detox and long-term rehab facilities trying to get better. Not to mention the craziness going on inside of our home. Looking back on it now, it becomes really emotional to not only think about all he went through while suffering from his disease, but all I went through as his spouse and the healthy parent in our family. As well as all our children went through watching it unfold.

wife, late husband and children
Courtesy of Annie Parker

You see, there are many forms of loss in living a life with an addict. Death is just one of them. Time spent away in rehab, divorce, chronic illness, incarceration, relapse, and emotional change are all losses too. We family members simply have to find a way to be okay no matter what happens.

Over time, I learned Chris’ alcoholism was completely out of my control. There was absolutely nothing I could say or do to change this situation for him; he had to put the hard work in toward his own recovery. And, I had to do the same for myself. Though I had no control over what was happening, I did have control over how I handled it. And, I had control over the decisions I made moving forward.

The thing about addiction and alcoholism is it doesn’t discriminate. This is a disease of the mind that doesn’t care about your race, sex, religion, or status in the community. Chris was a successful college graduate. And he was truly a wonderful partner and father… until he got too sick and was no longer able to be.

son and late father
Courtesy of Annie Parker

If you’ve been affected by someone else’s drinking, it’s important to not underestimate the lasting impact it will have on your life. It has the potential to knock out an entire family. I, too, had become ill from Chris’ disease, so I was lashing out and we were fighting a lot. Our kids were watching us and suffering. Our youngest was becoming extremely anxious and our oldest was angry and withdrawn.

Because of this, my husband and I were divorced just 45 days before he lost his life. Less than one week before Chris died, I heard something that changed every single thing I thought I knew about addiction. It changed the way I saw him and gave me the availability to forgive him before he passed. This was such a blessing for me. I was in an Al-Anon meeting when a fellow member said, ‘It’s important to remember the alcoholic is suffering too.’

wife and sons at late husband's funeral
Courtesy of Annie Parker
Widow grieves at funeral for husband who died of alcoholism.
Courtesy of Annie Parker

Whoa! Howwww had I never thought that before?

I spoke with Chris the next day. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the very last time I’d see him face to face. He held himself up by grasping the banister of the steps. His skin had turned yellow and his glasses were broken and crooked on his face. We sat together and I will never forget the way he looked at me through his piercing blue eyes. He knew he was dying. We both did. In that moment, I realized Chris was not just an alcoholic. He was a human being with a devastating illness. One who had a family that loved him fiercely. If I could go back and change one thing, it would be that I understood this before his last days alive.

Recovering As A Family

Recovery is not just for the alcoholic themselves, it’s also for the family members. Chris never stuck to a recovery program or therapy for very long. I believe this is why this insidious disease was able to kill him.

For my family, active recovery is a priority. We each have an individual therapist, as well as a family grief counselor. I attend Al-Anon meetings frequently and work directly with a sponsor in much the same way the alcoholic does in their own AA program. I am taking control and working on myself and what led me to the dysfunctionality of my life. This hard work gifts us freedom from the handcuffs of others’ choices and guides us to serenity and happiness in our futures. To this day, I still must remind myself daily I can only save myself.

sons at late father's funeral
Courtesy of Annie Parker

Two years after my late husband’s passing, I’ve learned life doesn’t have to be so hard. There is so much joy to be had in this world. Everything we go through is not some sort of punishment or proclamation that we’re unworthy of a life that feels good.

Our saving grace’s name is Eric. I’m not here to say another person can save you. Though Eric has definitely been a soft place for me and my boys to land, it isn’t possible for another person to step in and magically fix what’s been broken. Eric and I met at the very end of Chris’ life. Only a month into our relationship, Chris died and thankfully Eric chose to stay. He watched us all grieving and distraught. He held my hand as I told the boys their father had passed. He has never left our sides. In many ways, Eric has saved our hearts from completely breaking in half. However, without me working on myself, and him working on himself in his own ways, we could never work.

mother, sons and partner
Courtesy of Robyn Christopher Photography

It has become my passion to share my experience, strength, and hope about alcoholism in order to help educate and support other families that are in the trenches of this disease.

If there is one thing I could say to someone who finds themselves in a similar situation to ours it would be this: Don’t leave your post. As the healthy parent living in a world that is crumbling around you, be the love and stability you and your children need at home. You may be weary. You may be exhausted. You may be worried, and even sometimes frantic. But your kids have you. You matter more than anyone else in the world to your children. You carry the power to completely change how this disease affects your family, determining the trajectory of your children’s lives.

With that, I will leave you all with my favorite quote:

Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation, like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow. – Terry Real”

black and white photo of woman
Courtesy of Robyn Christopher Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Annie Parker of Southern Illinois. You can follow her journey on Instagram, and read her book. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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