There Is No Right Way to Cope after Alcoholism Kills Your Dad

back of bride walking away

My paternal grandfather died young and wasn’t there when his second daughter got married. My Aunt Lori asked my dad, her oldest brother, to walk her down the aisle. She’s always said that was one of her favorite pictures from her wedding, taken just before they entered the church.

I’d never envisioned my dad walking me down the aisle. When I was ten and “secretly” checking out copies of Brides magazine from the library, being “given away” was just something that happened but not something seeped in meaning of any kind. When I was a teenager, I sort of objected to the “giving away” part of it, but I loved being with my dad. I remember being shocked when a friend commented on how cute it was that a seventeen-year-old would still take her dad to the batting cages daily—it was just what we did and I loved it.

Although the walk down the aisle wasn’t imbued with a ton of significance for me, I did, however, imagine our father-daughter dance. Growing up, my family would often eat dinner and then retire to our living room for “performances” (my sister and I dancing around in dress up clothes to music) or for family dance evenings in our living room. I had the run of their collection of vinyl but we mostly stuck to a few favorites (some Statler Brothers, George Strait, and Mickey Mouse Disco). My mom and dad would dance while my sister and I waited our turns to dance on Dad’s feet.

Just as his own dad wasn’t around to walk his daughter down the aisle, as fate or circumstance or life or whatever you want to call it would have it, my dad died just after Forrest and I announced our engagement. Although never much of a traveler, while I was in college, he and my mom traveled to Florida (to watch me play softball) and to Maine (to watch me graduate). After each trip he would talk incessantly for at least two months after about how much fun it was to go somewhere for an event and get to enjoy the place. The dad I remember always had sort of a soft spot for geology (as I learned during some of our late night talks when I was in high school)—no one would have appreciated a jeep ride to see some dinosaur tracks as much as or been as excited as him

Instead of picking out our first dance song, he died last August. He’d been struggling with alcoholism for several years, and I didn’t really know how to feel. What was hard to communicate to my mom, my dad’s siblings, and the rest of my family was that I was actually sort of relieved. When asked how I felt about the strong likelihood he wouldn’t be able to travel to our wedding, I told a friend, “I’d rather plan on his not being there rather than him not showing up,” and quietly I added, “At this rate I’m not sure he’ll make it to next September.” His death meant that even though things were hard, they were less complicated. I didn’t have to dread a drunken phone call, or worse, a call that he’d hurt someone else while driving drunk. I had a very quiet cry on the stoop of our cabin with Forrest’s arms wrapped around me, but I was busier trying to arrange a memorial with a lot of moving parts (a sister in boot camp, a mother in denial, a group of lapsed-Catholic siblings reconciling a lack of Mass, and me living five hundred miles away).

Just the other day, my mom mentioned having a picture of my dad around at the wedding. I told her that wasn’t something I was really comfortable with but that I’d do some thinking to see if there was something I could be okay with. She seemed to accept that but said, “But he does need to be there though.” Part of the difficulty in the wake of his death was the vastly different ways everyone has dealt with it. I saw this statement from my mom as a real positive step in the right direction (Mom and Dad would have been married forty years this November; she loved him tons but as a result of his addiction they were on their way to divorcing when he died) just to talk about it at all. The problem was, I wasn’t sure how much I could give her.

A couple of days later, in the Montana wilderness, with a twenty-five-pound pack on my back, I sank to the trail in tears. My dog parked his butt on my feet and just sat patiently while I sobbed my way around a tangle of anger, sadness, and confusion. I had no idea how I could, or even if I could, honor my dad (and thus my mom’s wishes). Buried deep down inside was the fact that I was a) still mad at him for not getting better, b) relieved he was dead and not just skipping out like he did at my sister’s reception, c) resolved that I, personally, couldn’t do much to acknowledge him on my wedding day, but that d) my mom needed something.

Three months after he died, in October, when all the necessary family members could assemble, we held a memorial. I really struggled with the memorial and honestly had trouble sitting through it. The next day, however, my mom, all of my dad’s siblings, my mom’s sister and her husband, and one of my cousins and I made the long drive into the mountains to scatter his ashes. The mood was much lighter than the day before. As we hiked the two miles out to his elk stand, every now and then someone would pipe up with a story. As we scattered his ashes, I smiled through my tears, this is where I’m supposed to remember dad.

I’ve printed a small picture of him to add to my mom’s corsage so he can “be there” without me thinking about it; she deserves probably more than that, but that’s all I can give her. My moment of remembering my dad might come just before I walk down the aisle, it might come while dancing, I’m not really sure. I don’t really want to talk about him because it still makes me sad, but in a quiet moment, surrounded by the very different type of wilderness of the red rock canyon walls, I hope I can think of him and smile.

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  • Laura

    In situations like these there are no perfect answers about how to proceed. Your story is beautifully told. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • PA

    There are no words. This is beautifully said, and it reminds me that not every feeling I am having right now needs to fit into a neat little box. Thank you for sharing, Beth!

  • This post really hit home for me. I’ve had a complicated relationship with my father, and I know that in the eventuality of his death whatever I feel is not likely to follow usual grieving scripts. So thank you for sharing, because it’s always nice to know that you’re not alone in the hard stuff.

    And congrats on the wedding! I hope it was everything you and Forrest needed and wanted it to be.

  • Heartbreaking, but beautifully written. I hope for you that at some moment you were able to think of him and smile. When my mom was pregnant with me, she lost her father in similar circumstances, and I know it has been painful for her to remember and acknowledge him due to the way his illness affected him and their family … there are no easy answers, but I hope that you are finding peace, all the same.

  • Kristen

    This was me, exactly, although my dad died 13 years before I got married. He was an alcoholic my entire life, and we had pretty much been estranged for a few years when he died. I had a little trinket on my bouquet from a necklace he gave me when I was small, but that was the only remembrance of him that I had at our wedding. There were no pictures of him, he wasn’t mentioned in our vows…I know a few people found it strange, but that was how I needed it to be. My relationship with him was complicated, and I didn’t want to infuse such a happy occasion with sentiment that didn’t exactly ring true just because people assume that a daughter would or should be missing her dead father on her wedding day. My brother walked me down the isle and I ended up doing an impromtu dance with my mother half way through the reception. And it all felt beautiful and authentic and true. I hope that your wedding felt the same to you. xo

  • CBB

    Thank you so much for posting this. My grandfather (who was like a father to me when I was a kid) died of alcoholism in May, and my wedding is in just a couple of weeks. The feelings of grief, anger, and relief you describe all ring so incredibly true. Like you, I have very fond memories of him before he got so sick. Despite the relief I felt when he died (no more drunken phone calls, no more wondering will he make it to the wedding, and, in his condition, will I be able to enjoy the day at all if he does), I’m only just now coming to terms with the fact that the man I loved–the strong, incredibly generous guy who helped to raise me–died along with the alcoholic. I’m still not sure how we’re going to involve his memory in the wedding–the photo in the corsage is a beautiful idea.

    Thanks again for sharing your story.

    • There’s lots of great ideas floating around on the internet (and in the APW archives)–it’s just so so so important to make sure you figure out a way that works for YOU (and your partner). It was really hard for me to communicate to my mom’s support system (her sister and best friend) that what *I* could and couldn’t handle was a lot more important than what she needed to have.

  • KB

    “His death meant that even though things were hard, they were less complicated.”

    Wow, this hit way too close to home. My own father has been sick for years and I actually have run through the emotional scenarios of what would happen if he were to die or, God forbid, have an episode during the actual wedding. My mom has actually said to him that if something happens during the wedding, he’s going to just have to take care of himself because she refuses to concede any time to his mostly controllable condition. So, yeah, I, too, struggle with the guilt of thinking that things would be easier and what that means about my relationship to him. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  • Beautifully written. My heart goes out to you. And mazel tov on your recent wedding!*

  • Liz

    Thanks so much for sharing, Beth. I’m glad you found a way to respect your mom’s feelings while protecting your own.

  • Beth,

    That was beautiful.


  • Granola

    This post was really heartfelt – thank you for sharing something so sensitive. It reminded me of a friend of my dad’s who also recently died of complications from alcoholism. His widow asked their daughter to speak that his funeral and she refused. Her mother was really hurt, and she was asking my dad about it, and he suggested a similar view point to yours. Certainly their daughter was said, but she was also really angry about how much her life had been upended by her father’s drinking and she just couldn’t handle memorializing him at that time.

    There aren’t really any good answers to something like this, but I hope you found some peace and that your wedding contained more joy than grief.

    • Oh man. Hugs to your friend. That sounds EXACTLY like my story. My mother had two requests for the memorial: a slide show and that my sister and I would speak. She got the slide show and my sister speaking but I just couldn’t–the bad was too much tied up with the good for me to be able to process it in a public forum then. A year later, the bad is just beginning to fade.

      And yes. The wedding was as joyful as I could have ever hoped for.

  • I hope you did get to smile, Beth. I’m happy you found a way to allow your mom her need for remembrance while still honoring your original plan. Alcoholism is difficult, and while my Dad was there for my wedding (and thankfully sober), he left early just like he had for my college graduation, and my highschool graduation before that. When I was planning my wedding I chose an early afternoon wedding in part because I thought there’d be a better chance of everyone showing up sober.
    My dad, too, is nearing the end of his illness. I’ve been starting to see little signs of it for a couple years now, most recently his yellowing eyes. One day he will die, and while I will miss him, I’ve been greiving little griefs for years.

  • Red

    Thank you for sharing Beth, it seems like you found the right path to make your wedding and the memory of your Father as easy as possible for both you and your mom. I hope that any memories of him that you had on your wedding day were more happy than sad. And thank goodness for our four-legged friends who will sit next to us while we work the Feelings out!

  • Beth, Thank you so much for sharing your story, love. It was beautifully written. I’m glad your were able to help your mother feel that he was honored in even a small way, even though you didn’t need a physical token to remember your father on your wedding day.

  • Anon

    My dad quit drinking the February before our October wedding, and it’s something I can’t discuss publicly but I struggled a lot with how to deal with his drinking as we were planning our wedding. I planned an early afternoon Sunday wedding, and I planned to serve only beer and wine because my Dad was a whiskey drinker. I knew though, that he would bring minis of his preferred whiskey and pass them out to all of his friends, because he humiliated my sister and I by doing this at my cousin’s wedding a year before when he found out they were only serving beer and wine. I knew that if I asked him to, he wouldn’t drink until after he gave a toast, but I also knew that his drinking would color the events leading up to the wedding in a very real way.

    Trying to plan a wedding with a recovering alcoholic father was a very different beast than trying to plan one with an alcoholic father, as I made sure that there would be sparkling water and aqua fresca and sober people to sit with my dad and that he would have something to toast us with and that nobody would pressure him to drink. I’ve never talked about it openly because even now, even after not drinking for two and a half years and admitting how hard it was to quit, my Dad will never admit that he’s a recovering alcoholic or even that he had a drinking problem. So it was strange to plan a wedding and make sure everyone was sensitive and also not admit that my Dad was a recovering alcoholic. I simply said, “my parents don’t drink” and tried to pass it off as a religious or otherwise objection.

    All of this is simply to say, I sort of understand how you feel. And mostly I don’t. But that addictions are complicated and death is complicated and all you can do is your best to feel how you need to be feel and let others feel how they need to feel.

    • You hit the nail on the head: Addictions are complicated. I can’t imagine how hard it was for you to plan a sensitive wedding without being able to disclose what was really going on.

      (Makes me think about how hard it was to reconcile everyone’s feelings around just my DAD…let alone understand all the complicated different situations surrounding alcoholism. So, like you, I sort of understand how you felt. And mostly I don’t. And that’s okay. But you do have all of my support, Anon.)

    • KB

      I second Beth’s comment about planning a sensitive wedding and add that I can empathize with how hard it is to plan events around someone else when the event isn’t All About Them, yet they (consciously or not) make it All About Them, and the feelings of guilt that go along with the debate over choices and free will and your role in supporting or not supporting them with YOUR event, and how other people have an opinion about your support/lack of – it just snowballs. It’s not just addictions – people are complicated.

  • Beth, thank you for writing what I’m sure was a difficult post. I hope it helped.

    With my parents having divorced while I was still in diapers and my dad being on the other side of the world, most days I can pretend he doesn’t exist. But reading this brings up a flood of emotions for me and most are too confusing for words.

    My dad has been an alcoholic for as long as I’ve been alive. Sometimes I feel guilty for not caring more, for not staying in touch. But mostly I’m relieved that I don’t have to. I’m relieved that although I had to send him an invitation to my wedding, I knew that he would never come. I’m relieved that I never had higher expectations for him, because then I don’t have to be disappointed when he fails again.

    Addiction is an awful, complicated thing.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. I am sorry your dad died last year, and also that for years you had to watch him suffer (and suffer yourself, in return) from alcoholism.

    I would like to post an advice column from Dear Sugar on the Rumpus, in which she responds to an engaged woman considering inviting her still-alive-but-alcoholic dad to her upcoming wedding: In case it is useful to anyone in that situation.

    Strength to you, Beth. Your honesty is inspiring.

    • Julia

      Thank you for this link. I cried because it cut to the core of the reality of my father’s life choices and their consequences for me. As another commenter said above, “I’ve been grieving little griefs for years,” and not inviting him will be an acknowledgement of how big that grief really is; but it need not cloud the hope for the future that my wedding represents.

      • Hi Julia, I’m glad you found that advice meaningful. I <3 Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed), she has so much empathy and a lot of her advice is actually about dealing with difficult family situations and setting healthy adult boundaries with people who have failed us, in one way or another. I hope you have a wonderful wedding. xoxoxo

  • Lynn

    My father was a paranoid schizophrenic. His disease made it really difficult to have a normal childhood, and as I got older and realized that he was in fact crazy, I started distancing myself. I couldn’t allow his sickness–particularly when he didn’t believe he was sick–to affect my life.

    He passed away when I was 21, and I was *relieved*. He was making efforts then to reach out and re-establish a relationship, but he was saying all the same things he’d said in the past, doing all the same things. With his death, I didn’t have to feel guilty about protecting myself. It was incredibly painful for my grandparents, but it was just a relief for me.

    When Pooh and I married earlier this year, there was conversation about whether I wanted to invite my brother, who suffers from the same illness and engages in the same behavior, and if I wanted to somehow memorialize my father. The answers were easily no. I didn’t want to enter our marriage with those memories and fears hanging over us.

    • My heart goes out to you there. My grandmother and aunt are both schizophrenics and I know how difficult that’s been for me growing up, and I have some idea how difficult it was for my mother, so I can only begin to imagine what that must be like for you.

  • “I’d rather plan on his not being there rather than him not showing up”…YES.

    My dad and I had a complicated relationship due to addiction and he died when I was 13. I have been thinking a lot lately about how to deal with that when it comes to wedding planning, and how to (or even whether to) honor someone who failed me a LOT. I haven’t quite decided what to do yet but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in this challenge.

  • We did a “toast to absent friends” as our “memorial” because my Dad has complicated feelings about his Dad and I didn’t want to honor my grandfather in a way that was meaningful for me but hurtful for my Dad. Several of our grandparents had passed away and many family members weren’t able to make it, so we just had my father in law give a quick toast to absent friends and then we got back to partying. I had my own private moment as we were getting dressed and my sister had added The Gambler to her pre-wedding playlist and we both sang it and I thought about my grandparents and remembered what I needed to to feel happy instead of sad.

    • Taylor B

      Thank you for sharing this idea. We each have only one living grandmother, both unlikely to travel for our wedding next summer, and due to lots of divorce and remarriage in my family, I have also lost both of my parents’ step-fathers. It has felt complicated and overwhelming to find a way to honor those who cannot be there with us, and respect all the layers of feelings among those family members who will be in attendance. Thank you.

  • Rachel

    Thank you so much for this post. Although my alcoholic father has not yet been taken by his disease, I can relate so much to what you’ve been through. As a grown child of an alcoholic, so much of my adult life has been spent learning to reconcile my past and find happiness, whether or not my father is still drinking. (Which in this case he is, and I have long ago started grieving the inevitable loss of my father to this disease.)

    Unfortunately, planning a wedding has made it extremely difficult (at times) for me to separate my happiness from the unhappiness surrounding my father’s drinking that continues to plague my family. I have put a lot of thought into the decisions I have made about our wedding the will be best for both me and my partner. We are having the wedding in the town where we now live, not my hometown where my parents still live. I have asked that both my mother and father walk me down the aisle, and I have my older brother reserved as a back-up. I have resolved myself to the fact that whether or not my dad shows up on my wedding day, I will focus on the people who are there and the love and support they show us.

    Obviously, it still hurts to think about my father not coming to my wedding, but if APW has taught me anything, it is to recognize the difference between the way things really are and the way we wish they were. My hope is that anyone who reads this can find comfort in the fact the dealing with alcoholism while planning your wedding is, in fact, a reality for many of us and that you are not alone.

    Hugs to Beth, the APW community, and anyone out there who hasn’t yet stumbled across this wonderful source of support.

  • Lady

    This is absolutely spot-on for me. My father died just over a year ago, and I am getting married in ten days. I never wanted to be “given away”, but the idea of the dances with parents is terribly painful. Thank you for this!

  • Amanda Hunter

    Oh man. I’m living this right now (mostly).

    My father died of acute liver failure (as a result of years of alcoholism) last August, just a week after I got engaged…just a week after he whole-heartedly gave his blessing and consent to my fiance over the phone.

    We’re getting married next Saturday, the 13th, and, though i’m so sad i won’t get to share this HUGE day with my dad, he probably wouldn’t have really been “there” anyway. I felt that same relief that you (Beth) did about not having to worry about him. it sounds awful to say, but there it is.

    I had thought to put a dark green (his favorite color) sash over one of the chairs in front to signify leaving a seat for him. Haven’t quite decided yet.

    My brothers (both younger, in their teens) are walking me down the aisle, and i honestly can’t wait. :)

  • Lizzy

    Beth, Thanks for writing this especially because as I planned my August wedding I felt so incredibly alone because of the situation with my alcoholic father. As I tried to explain to people why I wasn’t even walking down an aisle (I just walked out the front door of the farm house and on to the porch we got married on, as opposed to walking through the crowd in the front yard), it was so hard to say, “I just don’t want my dad, whether his absence or his presence, to be the focus” and “There’s a strong chance that my dad will not be attending.” I relate to your story and all of the comments here. Thank you all so much.

    I would love to read about and share more experiences about having an alcoholic parent and how that effects our approaches to being married now. As I’m sure is similar for many of you, my parent’s relationship in a nugget is so complicated due to my father’s alcoholism, that it set an equally complicated example.

  • Beth, thank you for writing this and sharing this. I will yammer on and on about dead parents and I’m still here in awe of your bravery and honesty. I’ve definitely found RELIEF to be the most distressing thread running through my grief, and it was hard for me to process that regarding my wedding even though it came five years after my parents deaths. I am really impressed with how clearly you’ve processed that part of your grieving process so early on. I’m so sorry for you loss, I’m delighted you had a lovely wedding, and I adore and admire you.

  • Libby Henderson

    Beth, as so many have shared here, thank you for sharing this. My father died six years ago, having very intently drank himself to death. It was an awful, horrible thing to go through, and when it was over, the primary emotion I felt was relief. My mother too, had finally left, and had filed for divorce, so as the oldest child, all the responsibility for the end of life decisions fell to me. It took me a long time to grieve, as I had to get past my anger. My first marriage, of almost 20 years, fell apart two months after my father’s death, so that whole next year was, well, a mess. But, when you are in the middle of such a thing, you don’t think much about what you are doing, you just do.

    I thought I would never marry again, but two years later met a wonderful man. Oddly enough, one of my saddest thoughts is that I am so sorry that my father, the one I remember from my younger years, never got to meet my now husband. He would have just loved him.

    I am so glad you found a way to honor your dad in a way that worked for you at your wedding. I had no one give me away the second time, and instead walked outside for the ceremony on the arm of my groom. It was what worked best for me, and I also found a small, but symbolic way to honor my dad and what I loved best about him through our unique cake topper. One of the first conversations I had with my husband was about some unusual solid white squirrels that lived in the area where we eventually had our ceremony. My father had loved the squirrels and the sight of them reminded him always of a dear friend that he had lost too early. I had an awesome artist I found on Etsy make a pair of white squirrels as a cake topper, and then placed the “story of the white squirrels” next to the cake. The squirrels now sit in my dining room and are a reminder both of my wonderful wedding and the power of enduring friendship and love.

    I wish you all the best, with a wonderful marriage and a life filled with blessings and love. The funny thing about grief is that it hits you at the most unexpected times, especially when you are processing through emotions so complicated as having dealt with a life long alcoholic. I try to remind myself to embrace it when it shows up, as it is an important part of the journey. Thank you for sharing your story. Libby

  • Katlin

    Thank you so much for this post. I am planning for my big day without my mother (who passed away in her sleep two years ago) and my fiance’s grandparents (who died within months of one another earlier this year). It’s a hard battle, as we plan things that normal people get to share with their families and we can’t. I still cry whenever I see a photo of a mother and daughter on her wedding day and he occasionally just bursts into tears because they won’t be there. Knowing that others have experienced this brings me some peace. It’s not the same, of course, but his grandmother had been growing more ill everyday from Parkinsons and he once told me that he hoped she was gone before the wedding so that she could watch from heaven. I hope the time brings healing and that you can gain some peace from knowing you have brought me a little bit of hope today. Thank you.