Managing Grief over the Years
The phone call came—the phone call that all of us with addicted children know we should be prepared for. We were not prepared! Our son had been clean for a month and was in treatment. He had already made arrangements for further care. Yet the voice on the other end of the line said, “Your son was found unresponsive.” Next came, “The paramedics found a faint pulse, and your son is in an ambulance headed to the hospital.” At the hospital, the smiling person who came to take us to the family room asked, “Would you like me to call the chaplain?” I knew what that meant. No, let me see my son now! After moving through many details and words, we were finally in a room with our unresponsive son. The doctor came in and told us his heart would stop soon and begged us not to resuscitate him. I held his hands and gave him a hand massage, as I had done since his birth—even in his late teenage years. I had hoped that would reach him, and he would miraculously return to us. Then he was gone—twenty-eight days before his thirtieth birthday. There was no miracle.
Now what? Life as we had known it was gone, never to return. We needed to keep moving through the next week, making necessary arrangements and handling details. The fog was thick! We kept asking, “What happened?” People came and left, the phone rang, the texts and emails came, and we said the same words over and over again. That long week ended, and my husband and I were left only with each other. With blank stares, we looked at each other, wondering how to start this new and different life.
A friend and pastor listened to our story and guided us. One piece of advice has remained ingrained in my mind and heart: “Your grief will come at different times and in different ways. Be patient with one another.” And so we began our first year without our beloved son and only child. How do we manage this grief?
YEAR ONE brought everything you expect and everything you don’t expect. Since the time we learned of our son’s addiction, my husband and I were united in how to proceed. We remained that way throughout the first year. Those days, weeks, and months were filled with denial, and we lived in a state of bewilderment. It was a year of seeing people for the first time since the passing of our son. Some people knew what had happened, and others did not. No one knew what to say to us. I wanted people to say my son’s name and remember him, but most people are uncomfortable with that; therefore, they chatter aimlessly. My husband and I were the ones grieving the loss of our son, yet we found ourselves being the ones to comfort others. There were times I became incensed by this. I wanted to seclude myself from people.
I couldn’t bear to hear others’ stories about their children and grandchildren. It was nothing but a reminder of what my son would never experience and what we would never experience with him. The connections we had with longtime friends were no longer the same. We continued to socialize with them, but our lives were completely different from theirs. During this, we continued to wade through all the unanswered questions, through the investigation of his death, the revealing of the person who brought him the drug(s), and even the actual cause of death.
My life felt empty. Emptiness implies weightlessness. Why was my heart so heavy when at the same time I felt vacant? I knew I had to find my own way to manage my grief. I began to focus on a routine. Wanting to read everything I could to understand what happened to my son, I decided to read every morning for twenty minutes. Coffee in hand, I would read small amounts from three different books—some helpful, others not. Those three books turned into stacks of books. After reading, I would meditate for fifteen minutes. Since self-guided meditation did not work, I resorted to a meditation app. Grief put enormous strain on my body as well as my mind. After meditation, I would spend twenty minutes stretching. I cared for my mind and my body every morning. Someone told me to make sure to drink plenty of water. We don’t realize how all those daily tears dehydrate us. While this routine helped tremendously, it wasn’t enough. I needed to get back to the things that used to bring me joy: my exercise and my textile art. They too became part of my routine. I stuck with this as much as possible and learned that when I was away from it, my grief became reckless and destructive again. By managing the grief, I could keep the pain at a five out of ten, and I could live with that. About eight months after my son died, I found myself smiling. I felt fortunate that I was still capable of seeing joy, and I attribute that to finding my routine. Still, the breakdowns came. They came frequently and were hard and violent.
YEAR TWO was equally as difficult, just in different ways. All of the “firsts” had taken place, so I assumed the pain and emptiness would begin to lessen or soften. Not so; in fact, they seemed to be closer at hand. Truth is, the reality had set in. I would never again see, hear, touch, hug, or tell my son I loved him! The “seconds” were equally as hard as the “firsts,” and once again, I was reminded of how important my routine is to managing the pain. Also during this year, my husband and I began to see our situation through different eyes. Men and women process and handle information differently. His way of managing was very different than mine. Another challenge was upon us: learning to respect and have patience with each other’s grieving process. I wanted to talk about it, and he did not. He had tucked it away only to bring it out on his terms. We have enough pain already, so to let our marriage suffer would only bring more pain and along with it bitterness. Respect and patience for each other was essential. Still, the breakdowns came and were hard and violent.
YEAR THREE. The third anniversary of our son’s death will be January 16, 2020. Yes, the pain and emptiness are still here. I have accepted that they will always be with me. This is my new life. Accepting this was a major step in healing. One of my biggest fears is that people will forget him. I don’t believe he will ever be truly forgotten, but others think of him far less frequently. This makes me sad. I know who my “committee” is—those I can rely on to talk to about him and those who enjoy mentioning his name. I reach out to those people on rough days. I have yet to dispose of anything of my son’s, not even his last tube of toothpaste. I do not feel pressure to do that. When the time is right, I will know it. Still, the breakdowns came and were hard and violent.
I continue to see joy around me, and I am most grateful for that. I carry on with my routine and do the things that I enjoy and that keep me healthy. I have learned that I am strong. This does not mean the pain does not hurt as much. It means I know what I need to do to keep the pain at a five rather than a ten. What I have not been able to manage is knowing that my son lived with deep pain, and I was unable to help him out of his pain. That will haunt me for the rest of my days.
I believe some of my emotions are not that different from the ones I felt when he was alive and in active addiction. The biggest difference is that the worry is no longer there. That worry took up a lot of space. Emptiness and sadness have taken the place of worry. People tell me it will get better. It does not get better—it just gets different!
Still, the breakdowns come, and they are hard and violent. I continue to manage the grief.
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My biggest powers are acceptance and unconditional love.