Grieving a Loved One Lost to Addiction: Silent No More
Silent No More
As I sit here and begin to write my debut article as a contributor to AddictionBlog.org, in many places around the world “International Overdose Awareness Day” is being recognized. This event originated in Melbourne, Australia as a backyard event of a suburban crisis center in 2001, according to its website. This year –sixteen years later– from Kabul, Afghanistan to Lillehammer, Norway to Knoxville, Tennessee in the United States, countless people will be gathering to mourn, to remember and to hope –
…to hope for the kind of world where the shame and stigma of addictive illness will no longer be tolerated, a world in which their loved one might have survived.
The Work of Grieving
The work of grieving is difficult no matter what. At first, the road is utterly dark and barren — you feel only thorns beneath your feet. No sun, no moon, no stars. The sky above you is empty and you are completely alone with your pain. No one can reach you, for the best part of you is chained to another place in time, searching for a face you will never see again. It’s all you can do to remain in this world and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
But by and by, a daisy or two may appear unexpectedly along this desolate path – you may hear a songbird sing for the first time in months. These are your happy memories, offering a bit of warmth after such endless cold. Your heart beats lighter for just a moment, just long enough to breathe without crying.
“Maybe I can do this,” you think.
Instead of Empathy…
Now imagine for a moment, you have lost your son to an overdose – the little boy who used to give his lunch away at school to the kids who didn’t have enough to eat; the teenager who, without being asked, shoveled your elderly neighbor’s walkway after every winter’s storm; the young man whose smile was so beautiful it often took your breath away. Imagine after many months of solitude and despair, you find the strength one day to reach out to an old friend, mustering just enough courage to carry your fragile bones out the door, certain your friend –who knew your son since the day he was born– will be a source of comfort, maybe even help you find a lost daisy or two.
This is what awaits you instead:
Clearly ill at ease, in a tone laced with something akin to annoyance, your “friend” says,
“I wish I could be more sympathetic but, I mean, what did you expect? He did this to himself.”
He Did This to Himself
He did this to himself.
The words fall upon you like boulders from the sky. That lovely daisy, fighting bravely to push through the frozen terrain of your grief, is crushed in an instant. The melody of the songbird is strangled in mid-flight, as your despair returns with the weight of a thousand unlived moments. Your happy memories are driven out by blackness once again.
This is the reality for an ever-growing number of bereaved living with this kind of loss:
Your loved one is stolen from you by the illness. Then, your memories are eclipsed by the judgement and shame imposed upon you by a society that bolsters itself on the condemnation of its most vulnerable and disenfranchised.
The Word Remembered
Often, I hear those left behind defending their loved one, offering up proof that their lives had value. I observe their genuine smiles as they recount stories of good deeds, of academic accomplishments, of successful careers and great talents. And then I watch their eyes drift to the floor, hear their voices falter. Shame hijacks their memories along with those few sweet moments of reverie. Because all too often, the face looking back at them does not register any of this. The only word remembered, is the one that was never said at all: addict.
The Stigma Has Not Let Up
Much has changed in the past sixteen years – as evidenced by the events taking place all around the world today. But more people are dying from overdose than ever before. Access to compassionate, effective and affordable treatment is challenging for some, and downright impossible for many more. And as far as stigma is concerned – one need only read a message board on social media involving a high-profile overdose death to grasp how deep the disdain and how blatant the prevailing disregard for those suffering from addictive illness.
I have been at this for nearly seventeen years, since the death of a man I loved in September of 2000. In spite of all the barriers to ending the stigma, I have more hope now than ever, and I will not be dissuaded from this fight.
The Invisble Thread That Connects Us All
I know that there is an invisible thread that connects us all, and that each time I speak out, my voice may comfort someone who now stands where I once stood all those years ago, at the edge of grief’s dark abyss.
Back then, my voice was one of only few and the silence surrounding us was vast. But today, we are many, and we are – at last – silent no more.