(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.
(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.
(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.
In March, I wrote a blog about fentanyl that featured a poem by Carol Bialock: Breathing Under Water. I knew almost nothing about the author other than that she was clearly a deep thinker and an excellent poet. After that post, I was contacted by Fernwood Press, to let me know that for Carol’s upcoming 90th birthday, they were publishing a collection of her poems.
I have since learned more about this remarkable woman who was a sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Chile and a lifelong activist for human rights. (To learn more about her, please go to www.CarolBialock.com.) I want to share some highlights from Coral Castles, her newly published book.
I am sitting in our Arizona room looking out past our front garden, up to the soaring Rocky Mountains and the crystal clear cerulean blue sky. It is a view I love more than any other in the world. But my heart is heavy and I can’t seem to cheer it up.
And I realized, after a few days feeling like this, that grief is just like that. We can’t force the feelings to go away when they show up. We just have to ride them out. Like being on a river in a raft, floating along enjoying the peace and quiet and beautiful scenery when you come to a section of rapids. Hopefully you have your equipment in place: helmet, life vest, paddle. You know you need to hold on, gather up your energy and fortitude, and ride it out until you are through the rough water.
Where do we find the fortitude to be able to ride out the turmoil that this life can bring our way? This world offers many kinds of coping mechanisms, most of which offer only temporary relief – diversions – like watching a movie, going on a trip, shopping, eating, using alcohol, or a substance, etc. These may work for a small dip in the waves. But what if you are thrown out of the raft during a violent upheaval from the current? How will temporary diversions and coping mechanisms fare? As we all know from experience, not too well.
The equipment we need for a healthy and stable life on this planet should be in place so that when difficult times come, we can at least fall back on it: daily habits that promote well-being; a solid community support system like AA or 12-step groups or a small accountability group; a foundation of spiritual beliefs and practices.
My husband and I rely on that equipment – the only real stability we have known in the wake of our son’s death from a heroin overdose. We keep up our daily exercise and healthy diet and sleep; we call on our close community of friends who know us well and support us through thick and thin; and lean on our faith in a God who loves us, trusting His promises. We aren’t instantly removed from the tumultuous currents, but we know we will get through. I need to remember this today.