A Different Death

Yesterday, my husband John, and I, along with family and friends, celebrated my father’s life of 92 years with a beautiful memorial service. He was buried with military honors for his service during WWII. In the week since his death, friends have asked me how I was feeling about his death – knowing that this death is the now the fifth death in my immediate family since 2001. First my younger brother at 40 from AIDS, then my sister at 56 from breast/brain cancer, then my son at 25 from a heroin overdose, then my other brother at 51 by suicide – and now my father.

This death, of a great-grandfather, is different than the previous four in so many ways. Not only do we expect grand-parents to pass away before their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, but we know by the 10th decade of life, the day to meet our maker is fast approaching. For my father, he was doing quite well mentally, but his health was declining rapidly this year. By August, we knew his days were numbered – and so did he. The dying know they are dying, and for my father, it made him sad. He loved life and he loved his family. And even though he had a strong Christian faith and confidence in waking up in a new and unimaginable existence with his loved ones who went before him, he still had a very natural trepidation of the process of dying.

His last two weeks were marked by no appetite and finally no ability to even drink – his body was done with this life. With John holding his hand, he took his last breath and his spirit left the room – and left this earth. How did I feel? Sad because we will no longer enjoy his presence, and his death marks the end of an era of the large Italian family dinners and parties. But I was also relieved that he was no longer suffering in a body that was giving out.

The unexpected death of our son from a heroin overdose was different in every way imaginable. I look back now and wonder how John and I made it – how we didn’t end up institutionalized under heavy medication. I remember in the first few months feeling that my mind was on the verge of splitting in two – my heart was already broken – but it is our minds that hold us together. The love and support from our close friends and family surely were part of that glue. But the real potion that caused us to not tip over the edge was the mercy and grace of God. Without Him, we wouldn’t have had the courage to go on or the strength to look ahead with hope of an eternity with our son and with our other family members.

For those of you with friends who have lost a child to a drug overdose, please remember that a sudden, unexpected, preventable death is different from all other losses. These deaths are not natural, the lives were not completed, the parents and family can not just move on. They need your love and support – and prayers.

The Ghosts of Grief

My husband and I just returned from a long trip – away from our home, away from all the reminders of our son’s life and death. One would think that being ‘away’ from those physical cues would minimize, or even alleviate, the consistent thoughts and feelings of our now-absent loved one. But it doesn’t.

I don’t know whether that is something to lament or cherish. I find both emotions surface at alternate times. What did strike me while we were away – away with our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters having lots of fun and constantly occupied – was that as soon as I had a moment alone and still, my son returned to center stage.

And it reminded me of a friendly ghost – those ones I grew up seeing in old cartoons and movies – the ones that continued to visit their loved ones and prompt them to do something, or help relieve them of guilt, or reassure them of their love.

What made me especially think of this connection was that I found myself saying inside “Not now – I don’t want to think about you now – it’s too emotionally draining, and I need to stay in the present with those I can actually love and be with now.” And, surprisingly, I find that I am able to push the memories and sense of his presence aside. The ‘ghost’ vanishes, at least temporarily. This is definitely a progression in grief. For the first year or two after JL’s death, I was not emotionally able to make this choice. Many times I was physically present with those around me but emotionally re-living some moment from the past.

It causes me to wonder if the real reason I am now taking this step is to avoid pain and if so, does that pain mean I have unfinished business with my son’s death? I’ve thought much about this and believe that is not the reason. It is more just avoiding the pain that surfaces with reminders of my son and a life cut short. And I think that pain will always be present because death, although it is our common fate, is not how things should be. I believe we are beings who were created for unending life and everything in me longs for the actual reunion I will someday have with my son, whatever that may look like.

I never want to lose the sense of my son’s presence, and the reminders of his life. So, I’m OK with the occasional ‘ghost’ appearing in my mind, even at inconvenient times, and accept it as part of the cost of life, love, and death.

Grieving The Living

For many, 2017 was a year of loss: a job, a home, a relationship, an opportunity. For between 120,000 parents to well over a million friends and relatives of the 60,000 persons who died from opiate overdoses in 2017, the new year will be a continuation of the grief process. Once we are forced to enter this unexpected, unwanted, and uncharted new territory, we have no choice but to travel through it. With support from our communities of friends and God’s love, we will somehow come out on the other side. If we have grieved honestly and fully, we will be better people who see others through different eyes.

But what about those who are living with a loved one in active addiction, or in a recovery program for the umpteenth time, or whose whereabouts are unknown? What is their 2018 going to be like? I can tell you, because my husband and I were there a few years ago. We were in constant flux between hoping against hope as we prayed and waited for a miraculous change, and discouragement and depression as we watched our young adult son struggle against an unrelenting foe. We were grieving the loss of the son we loved and raised and had hoped to see move successfully into adulthood. We were grieving the living.

Dr. Susan D. Writer wrote an excellent article on “Grieving the Living” posted on the Coalition For Healthy Minds website: http://cahmsd.org/grieving-the-living. The short article is well worth the read, but here are a few highlights:

“For those of us who have a loved one who struggles with mental illness or addiction, we are all too aware of how we can ‘lose the living’.  When that individual is in the throes of…any unmanaged mental illness or addiction, their behaviors are altered. They are not themselves – or at least not the version of the people that we have grown to know and love. In some instances…we can only watch as they spiral down a dark or dangerous path.  No matter what the outcome, our relationship with this loved one changes as a result of what we are experiencing, separately and together, and we often feel a deep sense of loss.  But we must grieve the relationship of the past if we are to create a new one in its place for the future…though there may be remnants of the person we knew ‘before’ the illness or addiction, the change has occurred and all of us must learn to adapt… But we all must honor these changes in our loved ones and recognize that if we are to have any relationship with them we need to learn to adjust and adapt on our end… Grieving is a process and a necessary part of life…In order for us to realize the potential for a new relationship, with new opportunities for connection and intimacy, we must grieve the old relationship, and essentially ‘grieve the living’ to allow for life to move on… On the other side of grief is growth.  And on the other side of grief is also acceptance and peace.  But most importantly, on the other side of grief is love.”

I don’t know if while grieving our living son we ever got to consistent acceptance and peace, but the love between us all remained, even up to his last phone call to us the night before his death. And for that, I am eternally thankful.