(Twenty-ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
I have never been one to accept something without question – anyone who knows me well, knows this – and they live with the frustration my incessant questions create. But it’s the way I need to process what is happening to or in or around me in order for me to honestly make the decision to accept or reject whatever the issue is at hand. I don’t think I could live with myself if I pretended I agreed or accepted something when I didn’t – the dishonesty would keep me in turmoil. And many times, it is ultimately for self-preservation that I accept something distasteful or painful when I finally understand there is no other option.
Death leaves us no other option – it is not negotiable. For most of us, our survival instinct brings us to the realization that in order to retain our sanity, we must eventually accept death – even of those we love the most in this world – whether we like it or not.
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.
There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.
Last week, our son would have turned 31. My husband and I still wonder what that would have been like? Would we have enjoyed celebrating as he got married like most of his friends have? Would he be living nearby or in a distant state for a new job? Would he and his wife be planning to start a family and give us grandchildren? These are questions we can only visit in our imaginations, and yes, they bring pain.
On our son’s FB memorial page and our Instagram this week, I posted a photo of the desert after a storm when a rainbow appeared, with this quote: “As in nature, so in life: it takes both clouds and sunshine to make a rainbow.” I have been pondering these apparent paradoxes in nature and in life, especially the concept of darkness & light. While reading A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, I was reminded again of how we felt from the moment we heard the words from the sheriff’s mouth: “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but your son is dead.” Sittser lost his mother, his wife, and his daughter together in a head-on collision by a drunk driver and says, “Sudden and tragic loss leads to terrible darkness.” Yes. Existential darkness.
He describes a dream of seeing the sun setting and running frantically west toward it in order to remain in some vestige of light – but the sun was outpacing him to sink below the horizon. As he looked back over his shoulder, utter darkness and despair was closing in behind him. He later realized that “the quickest way to reach the light of day is to head east, plunging into the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.”
The other day I was thinking about our son and his struggles with drugs and alcohol and all that we know and understand now compared to what we knew and understood in the early 2000’s right up until his death in 2014. I saw myself, as if I were standing out in an open field, turning, looking back over my shoulder. That’s what I do when something unexpected or disturbing happens. I look back and try to figure out what I missed, what I could have done differently.
My next thought was: Why couldn’t my husband and I see the handwriting on the wall? Why didn’t we realize how dire the situation was at every new juncture with our son as the years went by? But, I realized that it wasn’t that we couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall. It was that we didn’t understand what it meant.
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.