Gilded Grief

(Short topical blogs based on Opiate Nation – translation into most languages in tab on right.)

While reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown, I was struck by a thought she shared about our American culture and the absence of honest conversation and the hard work it takes for us to rise strong after a fall on our face – a failure. She worries that “this lack of honesty about overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure.”

Gilding is a perfect word-picture for this characteristically human behavior: applying a very thin coating of gold to a plain, inexpensive object that gives it the appearance of gold. This is what we do when we are dishonest about our feelings. We are choosing to make our real, plain, and common story appear better than it is.

“We’ve all fallen…but scars are easier to talk about than they are to show with all the remembered feelings laid bare…We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending.”  (Rising Strong, Introduction)

The irony of gilded stories is that the real and valuable story is what lies beneath and it never needed to be gilded. Our painful stories do not need to be covered over – they just need to be polished so they shine. “All that glitters is not gold” – the well-known saying from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – reminds us that things which seem valuable many times are not. A fitting corollary – “All that is gold does not glitter” from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring – reminds us that the plain, sometimes homely things in life are truly valuable.

For parents such as us who have lost a child to a preventable death – by overdose, suicide, alcohol poisoning, gang violence, etc. – the regrets and accompanying guilt are a “failure”, if not to others, at least to ourselves. While we all know about the stigma related to these preventable deaths, there is equal stigma surrounding openly sharing about loss and grief. During times of grieving our loved ones, most of us have heard well-meaning friends share their discomfort with our expressions of pain and hurt by encouraging us to “just move on” and “you will feel better soon.”

All of us prefer to gild the pain we experience – our sense of self and pride want to appear strong and well and on top of things. But I think we all know that this is not a healthy way to live our lives, to be fully alive. As Brown stresses in her work on vulnerability and shame, we cannot learn and grow and change after failure unless, and until, we acknowledge and deal honestly with the real hurt, heartbreak, and fear.

And John and I have found, when we are vulnerable and honest about our own failures and the resultant deep grief and emotional pain, we then invite others to be more open and honest about their own experiences and feelings.

The Paradox of Memories

(Twenty-eighth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Memories are strange things. How much control do we have over them? What triggers bring up which memories? How do triggers differ with each individual personality? Does grief affect memory? I know it does mine because I continue to experience new associations and memories being formed from what were once familiar items with no particular memory attached before—which now, after my son’s battle with addiction and death, have a specific memory related to him.

Like aluminum foil.

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Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

(Twenty-sixth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.

Singing The Blues

(Eleventh in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Honesty is one of the main themes that ripple under the surface of “The Blues.” Expressions of honest feelings, whatever they may be at the moment – themes of lost love, painful relationships, dashed hopes, and heartache. The majority of us have or will experience heartache in our lives. Although it seems counterintuitive, most of us feel consoled by songs that express what we are feeling deep inside but may have a hard time putting into words. In order for me to be honest, I have to acknowledge that I am singing The Blues.

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A Seismic Disturbance

(Tenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When there is a rupture in the earth’s crust it creates a seismic disturbance, the prelude to an earthquake. Something seismic happened deep inside us the day our son died – a fissure opened, and all our energy was expelled. What followed that shock was the onset of grief and, as with earthquakes, the aftershocks. But unlike earthquakes, the aftershocks of grief continue for days and months and even years.

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The In’s and Out’s of Grieving & Mourning

(Eighth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When I was young, I only went to one funeral. I can’t remember who it was for or where it was, but it must have been for a close relative or I wouldn’t have been there. I do remember seeing everyone dressed in black. It was a very somber setting, people talking in hushed voices, and I didn’t comprehend what was happening. I just knew everyone was sad. After that day, I never thought about that person again – and even if my parents thought about him or her, their acts of mourning seemed to stop with the funeral. And I had no knowledge of any grieving on their part because at that time and in their cultural setting, people kept feelings regarding their grief to themselves.

It wasn’t until 20 years ago when my younger brother died from AIDS that I was faced with a death that was so close I felt a personal loss that tore at my heart. There was no way to just quickly plan a funeral and burial and then move on. My life as I had known it, now had a gaping chasm where my brother had once been and it was not going to close up anytime in the near future. I needed someone who had travelled this path before me to guide me through the overwhelmingly disturbing and depressing feelings. None of my friends had experienced a close loss like this. So, I looked to the books that were most recommended: On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis.

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Separation Anxiety

(Fifth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

After many years of not having a dog, we decided to adopt one from our local shelter. We found a beautiful German-shepherd/wolf mix who was 18 months old. Bella was docile, sweet and quiet. The next day, as I headed out to the grocery store, I gave her a hug and saw her watch me through the window as I got into the car.

            When I returned an hour later, I was met with a shock. I found her, panting rapidly and pacing nervously in our bedroom where our wooden shutters were open and had bite marks. She had tried to escape while I was gone. I had no idea why. I immediately called the shelter. “She is having separation anxiety: she needed to escape being left alone.” We found out that she had been with two families previously when she was dumped at the shelter because she continued to try to escape when she was left alone for hours on end. They gave us the name of a dog behaviorist and we started down the long road of helping Bella manage her fear when we had to leave her at home.

            Children and adults can experience separation anxiety when someone they are attached to leaves them. They can have recurrent and excessive distress just anticipating being separated from loved ones and the anxiety can be so intense that it is hard to function in everyday life. Panic attacks and physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches can occur. For me and my husband, on the morning of our son’s death from overdose, standing over our son in that body bag we experienced the ultimate separation anxiety. The overriding emotion we felt was fear: fear of the unknown future we were facing. We couldn’t visualize how we would survive without our son as part of our lives and the future we thought we all had together. He had not only been an integral part of our lives for 25 years but he was literally a part of us–the combination of our DNA that formed him as a particular and unique human being. To say that it was like having part of you taken away doesn’t describe it. This was having our hearts torn out.

            We would never embrace or kiss or stroke the cheek of our son again. We were facing an existential crisis, shaken to the core, questioning our reason for living. Regardless of our strong faith that had seen us through many other deaths in our families, this separation seemed incomprehensible and cruel. It was only by falling down on our faces and waiting for Mercy to gradually pick us up that we were able to survive this traumatic separation from our son and move forward again in life.

A Lament and A Love Song – for Our Son

Lament for a Son is an intensely personal tribute by Nicholas Wolterstorff to his 25-yr-old son who died in a climbing accident. It is eloquent and unforgettable as he gives voice to a grief that is both unique and universal: the tortured pain of losing an individual, a child, your child.

We lost our 25-yr-old son to a heroin overdose six years ago on August 2, 2014. Lament for a Son has been one of our go-to books since that time. Wolterstorff expresses the incomprehension and sense of unfairness that, I believe, parents worldwide feel when they lose a child – someone who is supposed to bury you, not the other way around. It doesn’t fit with the cycle of life we expect – it is jarring, unsettling, bewildering, frustrating, disquieting.

In the Preface he relates:

A friend told me he gave a copy of Lament to all of his children. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s a love song,” he said. That took me aback. But, Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love song. Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?

Yet, while the book expresses the common feelings brought on by sudden unexpected death, what he doesn’t share with those of us who have lost a child to drug/alcohol addiction are the previous long years, sometimes decades, of turmoil, anxiety, fear, and depression that we experience on top of all the normal grief.

And shame.

There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.

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If my son were alive today during the Covid-19 pandemic…..

I would fear for his life more than ever.

“Drug Overdoses Soaring: Suspected overdoses nationally jumped 18% in March, 29% in April, 42% in May, data from ambulance teams, hospitals, and police shows.”

As a young man in America who wanted more than anything to be free of his deadly heroin addiction, how would he be weathering the Covid-19 pandemic?

“The drug-overdose-and-death epidemic already was hurting communities before COVID-19, but during the pandemic there have been reports from every region of the country on spikes in opioid-related calls to first responders, visits to emergency rooms, fentanyl and tainted-drug-related overdoses. There also have been challenges to accessing sterile needle and syringe and exchange services.”

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Death in the time of Covid-19: The Body Bags

During the first few years of writing Opiate Nation, the working title was Saying Goodbye Through a Body Bag. As I got closer to publication, friends suggested I look for another title, saying it was off-putting and gave a depressing visual image. It took me a while to adjust to the idea of another title because it was the experience of doing just that – saying goodbye to my son through a thick black body bag in the hot August sun – that pushed me through my grief and on to writing about what my husband and I had experienced and what we hoped could be a warning for others.

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