According to the New York Times, “the death toll from America’s opiate epidemic topped 59,000 in 2016, more than the deadliest year of gun violence (1993), more than the worst year for auto fatalities (1973), and more in one year than in all the years of the Vietnam War.” Drug use is at an all time high, with collateral damage continuing to escalate, leaving a wake of pain and shattered lives behind.
Though cold statistics of opioid casualties are readily available, it seldom sheds any light on the parents, children or family members of those whose lives are cut short from drug overdose. This retelling is an attempt to give expression to those who have gone through it.
Treatment professionals talk of addiction as a “family illness,” something that affects all who encounter it. Overdose death only serves to multiply the feelings of sadness and grief, often igniting feelings of anger toward addicts or addiction, or in direct contrast, a sense of relief that their troubled loved one is no longer struggling.
It’s difficult to describe the process of losing a child (or parent, sibling) to a drug overdose, and although there might be similarities in the experience, it’s not the same for everyone. Trying to explain it is unfair.
There’s a line in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical Hamilton, which attempts to describe the emotional state Eliza and Alexander Hamilton experienced following the death of their son Philip. “There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name,” and ends with “you hold your child as tight as you can, and push away the unimaginable.” After spending time with parents who have lost their loved ones to overdose, that last line “push away the unimaginable” really amplifies what their experience is.
As we gathered for a Learn2Cope sponsored Grief Support Group in a small upstairs music room at a local church on an August night, I had no idea of what to expect. The facilitator had invited me to attend, and together we sat alone in the room; waiting. At approximately 6:20 people began to walk in, mostly alone, except for a grandmother who had lost her daughter. She was accompanied by the grandchild who had lost her Mom to an overdose.
Even though my presence at the meeting had been previously discussed and approved, it felt as though the group was trying to determine if I was worthy of their trust. We were gathered in a semi-circle, greeted one another with friendly, but subdued smiles, and began to chat about the heat, the humidity, the traffic, and because the windows were open the noise outside the church.
We talked about my interest in their group, and my hope of writing a paper on the issue of what happens to those left behind and I asked for their permission to sit through their group. They willingly agreed, but I could sense some feelings of discomfort.
I chose to disclose some of my own personal history to assure them I wasn’t there as a journalist or simply looking for a story. As I provided some of my experience with addiction, death of loved ones to substance use and my journey of recovery, I could feel the room open as these courageous people began to talk about their pain.
One of the first speakers, fighting to hold back her tears, talked about what she called “the initial blow.” It was “devastating, all consuming,” and “felt like I couldn’t take a breath.” She spoke about how the loss of her son has “consumed me all the time and everywhere,” how there is no escape, and “nothing is the same after.” She shared how losing her child has impacted her relationships with her other children, and how hard it is for her.
Listening to them talk about their grief, I noticed that the time since the loss didn’t seem to matter. They spoke as if it had just happened. I couldn’t help but think “more trauma.” Likely the underlying precipitant in the tragic scene before me, trauma exists in varying degrees in most if not all the individuals diagnosed with a substance use disorder. As the neuroscientist Dan Siegal states, “It’s part of our job to immerse ourselves into the chaos and rigidity, that is where the suffering is.” And here it is in full view continuing its emotional toll.
As more people revealed their heartache, we leaned toward each other, forming a tighter circle, connecting on a gut-wrenching emotional level, sharing the sadness together. Another Mom told the group of how hard it is to tell people how her son died, the “anticipated reactions” once she says those dreadful words, “he overdosed.” She painfully described how she immediately feels judged by them, and begins thinking “it’s my fault, I’m a horrible parent,” and worse, that somehow “my loss is less of a loss than anyone else who has experienced losing a child.”
Halfway through the meeting, the young woman who had lost her Mom, said one of the most powerful statements of the evening. “My Mom was doing the best she could.” Her barely audible comments made it clear that she was proud of her Mom, and that, regardless of the circumstances, she loved her Mom unconditionally. That is the power of love, which for this evening, conquered the sadness, grief, and even the shame. Others wanted us to know that their loved-ones were “so much more than just an addict,” they were wonderful, gifted, loving and brilliant children who suffered from addiction.
The emotions in the room reminded me of another mother, Victoria Allendorf, an advocate from Facing Addiction, who lost two of her sons to opiate overdose at the same time. She described it as “the moment we lose our soul; we die with our children.” She also went on to say in her interview that, “the silence of everything we lost is loudest at night.”
Leonard Cohen once wrote, “everything has a crack in it and that’s where the light gets in.” It is our belief, as long-time city residents and recovery advocates, that if we are open to new ideas, that sliver of light can quiet the silence and “Illuminate the path forward” to providing meaningful relief to those suffering from this modern day plague.