I am a mental health advocate. A stigma fighter. I am the mental health community administrator for the Wish Dish Platform. President of the Loyola University MD chapter of Active Minds. Yet, I struggle with my own mental health. It’s not that I expect others to believe that I don’t struggle with my anxiety and depression from time to time, but I certainly don’t think people know how incredibly much I have been struggling since the loss of my uncle.
I don’t know what the typical relationship of a girl and her uncle usually is, but I can tell you that my relationship with my uncle was anything but typical. I grew up in a very large, close, Italian family. The holidays were always my favorite because I got to spend the day with my 50+ family members on my dad’s side of the family. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I knew that I could call any of my relatives at any time, and they would be by my side in minutes.
I also had the privilege to live next door to my Uncle Mike and Aunt Lona since I was 8 years old. I would walk next door when I was bored, or when I needed someone to talk to. I spent more time with my aunt and uncle than most kids spend with their parents. I grew up with not only one set of parents, but two.
Uncle Mike and Aunt Lona have been two of my biggest role models since before I could remember. My dad’s parents and siblings immigrated here from Italy when they were young. My grandfather spent five years working in America and building a life for his wife and four kids back in Italy. My aunts and uncles had been through a lot in their young lives. They lost one of their siblings to cancer on the journey to America. Once they got to America, they had to build a life for themselves, learn English, go to school, and work to help support their family. Yet, none of this hinders my dad or his siblings in any way.
My Uncle Mike took these ideals to heart when he met the love of his life in ninth grade. At age 14, my Uncle Mike met his wife, and my Aunt Lona. They were perfect for each other. They always knew what the other needed, kept each other in line, and helped each other and rhea ones around them grow. I aspire to find a love as deep and as right as theirs was. I looked up to them both in every possible way. They weren’t simply my aunt and uncle; they were my godparents, my next-door neighbors, my role models, and my second parents. It was hard when they moved to South Carolina when I was a senior in high school. They were the first in the family to move outside of Maryland, and I took it pretty hard. But, I did have a sweet new vacation spot.
I thought that them moving to South Carolina meant that they would miss out on a lot if important moments in the lives of my sisters and I, but I was wrong. They flew up for every family party, prom, graduation, and most birthdays. They visited often, and we would always pick up right where we left off.
That is what made it even more difficult when my Uncle Mike suddenly passed away over a month ago. What made it even worse, was that it was extremely unexpected. Coming home for that weekend and seeing everyone in my driveway, I instantly knew something was wrong, but I never thought to expect what I heard next. I sat on my deck surrounded by family, and felt nothing. I cried as my aunt and uncle, first and second cousins, and other showed up at my house to share in the grief that we all felt. But I couldn’t feel it. Not until days later, or even when I saw my uncle laying in his casket.
I have been through a lot in my young life. I have watched my mom go through breast cancer and brain surgery, saw the emptiness in my sister when she lost her first baby, lost a close friend to suicide, and have been without grandparents since high school. Yet, this loss cut deep. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I either couldn’t feel anything at all, or felt so much that I thought I would explode. As this was all happening, two of my best friends were having the time of their lives abroad. It felt like my world stopped, and everyone else was doing great. I was drowning.
I was comforting everyone else and staying strong. But I also fell behind in school, drank to numb the pain, isolated myself from others, and was altogether miserable. My depression was at an all-time high, as was my anxiety. I had lost one of the best individuals in my life, and I couldn’t stand to be a part of my own reality.
I talked about the good times I had with him, the lessons he had taught me, and how I would give anything to hear him say “hello dear” one more time as he hopped out of his chair to greet me. I was ungrateful. I knew how much he meant to me, but I had always thought he would be there, like he always had been. The last time I saw him, I rushed my time with him to go be with someone who didn’t truly love me. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I was expecting him to be at my house waiting for me that day when I arrived home. He would tell me about the beers he drank the night before, the conversations he had with some of the people he loved the most in this world. What I got instead was the look of grief and terror on my dad’s face, and the knowledge that my life would never again be the same. But though it still to this day hurts more than I thought anything ever could, I prevail. I live my life in honor of my uncle. I do what I can to make myself and the world around me a better and more loving place, because after all, that’s what he was most proud of me for doing.
Every family has their issues. Every family fights. But as I begin the holiday season without the greatest man I had ever known, I ask that you forget the past. Forget all the bad times, and work for the good ones. I ask that you hug everyone in your life, tell them just how much they mean to you, and appreciate every second you have by their side. I loved my uncle with all my heart and spent most of my life with him, but still wish I could have just five more minutes with him. One more hug. So, this holiday season, love your friends and your family with all you have. Because unfortunately, you truly never know when it could be the last chance you’ll ever get.