WITH or WITHOUT HOPE?

There is something unique about the Christmas season, even if you do not buy into the Biblical story that lies at its core, even if you hold some other faith, even with no faith at all. For some reason, and not coincidentally, this time of year usually brings a sense of hope to most of us: hope in a better future for us and our loved ones, for society, for the world.

I think it is also tied in with the advent of a New Year, a new beginning, a chance to make changes that need a special impetus. “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier’.” (Tennyson). It seems “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” (Pope) and as we stand at the starting line on the path of a new year, we are forward-focused with possibilities, even unlikely ones.

Hope is optimistic. Hope creates courage. Hope fosters healing. Hope dispels fear. Hope supplies fortitude and persistence. Blind Helen Keller said, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

But what about those among us – our family, our friends, even our selves – who see no hope for the future, feel no sense of expectation but instead see only more of the drudgery they have lived with in life, the continual uphill climb with no rest along the way, no way out of an unbearable situation? A relationship, prison, an addiction, an illness, poverty, a loss. I think we all know that for these discouraged and depressed ones this week, among all weeks of the year, is the final straw. Everyone seems happy and contented, planning new goals, possible changes, new adventures – everyone except them, except “me”.

Eight months before our son’s death, he saw a friend overdose and die during the holidays. It was the impetus for him to seek help and go through withdrawals from heroin one more time with the hope that he would be free forever from his addiction. It was a realistic hope – if we had understood what he knew: he needed medication to help him achieve that long-term goal. We had hopes but they were based on mis-information and faulty assumptions. Eight months later we realized our mistake.

If you are among those who feel no hope, who are facing unbearable situations, seemingly unbeatable odds, please remember that we all – ALL – need help at times with feeling hope-full. Take the one step that can help you find the hope you need to envision a different, better future for yourself: call someone or go somewhere. A friend, a help-line, a hospital, a 12-Step meeting, a church service. Reject feelings of shame at admitting you need help by remember that we ALL need help to make it through this life. We were never meant to live life alone. We ALL need the support of a community of some sort. Advocate for yourself – you are worth it – until you find someone who will help. And don’t forget God. His children throughout the millennia have felt despair and depression. But we can remind ourselves of what King David said: “Why are you in despair, my soul? Hope in God, my help, my God.” (Psalm 43:5)

And for those of us who are feeling the anticipation of a new year with new hopes and realistic expectations, let’s be intentionally on the look out for those whose hope is lost and who need a listening ear and a helping hand. Let’s use our blessed life to help someone else.

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.

Epidemic Worsens, Hope Wains

In a March 6, 2018 public health report on NPR, Rob Stein reported the grim news on recent CDC statistics: across America, overdoses from opioids increased by an average of 30% in 2017––some areas were as high as 109% while others remained stable at 20%––occurring in every region and every age group of men and women. The latest data could underestimate the overdoses, because many people who overdose never end up in the emergency room (like our son) so are not accounted for.

“We think that the number of people addicted to opioids is relatively stable. But the substances are more dangerous than five years ago,” acting CDC Director Anne Schuchat says. “The margin of error for taking one of these substances is small now and people may not know what they have, due to availability of newer, highly potent illegal opioids, such as fentanyl.”

Sadly, 20 years on in the opioid epidemic, things are still worsening and government policies are doing nothing to help. Declaring it a “health emergency” but failing to fund quality public health care and the long-term recovery expenses that are essential for opiate recovery is creating a false sense of well-being when there is none.

“Emergency room staff need better training to make sure people with substance-use disorder get follow-up addiction treatment,” says Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum. “Too often, addicts are simply revived and sent home without follow-up care, only to overdose again. We can use this near-death experience—use it as moment to change that person’s life.”

These overdose deaths have contributed significantly to life expectancy in the US dropping for the second year in a row. This is alarming public health officials since life expectancy gives us insight into the health of a nation––the last time we had a drop was during the AIDS epidemic.

In another study about “Deaths of Despair”, Anne Case & Angus Deaton, economists at Princeton University, report “It’s also a crisis in which people are killing themselves in much larger numbers—whites especially. Deaths from alcohol have been rising as well––we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong and it is happening nationwide…The decline of well-paying jobs, security and good benefits may be fueling a sense of frustration and hopelessness,” Case says. “That may be one reason fewer people are getting married and having children outside of marriages.They have a much more fragile existence than they would have had a generation ago. As a result, these deaths are related to the fact that people don’t have the stability and a hope for the future that they might have had in the past.”

Hope for the future––something we all need––something that is increasingly hard to find in our fragmented society. Many, many voices are calling us to return to the basics for sustained human health and growth: real community, true spirituality, public and private integrity, simplicity of lifestyle, and sincere and tangible love for each other: love is a verb

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/03/06/590923149/jump-in-overdoses-shows-opioid-epidemic-has-worsened

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/12/21/572080314/life-expectancy-drops-again-as-opioid-deaths-surge-in-u-s