Men Talk Articles - December 2016 / January 2017
A Different Kind of Grief
© 2016 Gloria Englund
My oldest son Aaron died of a heroin overdose in May 2007. He was 33 years old and had battled substance use disorder for almost 20 years. After he died, I was encouraged by friends and family members to attend a grief group specifically for parents whose children had died.
The first 30 minutes of the grief group involved a volunteer speaker or grief expert offering some tidbit of their experience or knowledge for our support or pondering during our small groups which followed. I felt like this group could be the place where I could focus on my own grief process and not worry about where Aaron's brother or father was in their process. Second was that Bob, Aaron's stepfather, often joined me at these groups. Just knowing this meeting was as important for him as it was for me created an unspoken grief bond between us. The group seemed to create an opening point between us that we could not always find by ourselves.
The other thing that became a draw to the group was a woman whose adult child died of alcohol withdrawal related complications in a hospital. Although I connected to the general loss of all these dear, sweet parents who like me had to live with that upside down mortality of outliving our children, I always felt a disconnect from them which was based on two things. First, the children of many of these parents had achieved a successful life by most societal standards before they died. This had not been Aaron's experience. Second, although several died accidently or unexpectedly as did Aaron, the feeling that I got from some of the group members was that addiction is not really an illness but a pitiful character defect that eventually caught up with Aaron. In other words, his death was his own fault. I do want to make it clear that I do not believe this was done maliciously, but simply because of the ignorance that much of the general public shares about the disease of addiction.
I found this response from some group members appalling and stigmatizing. And, I didn't feel like my own personal grief group was somewhere that I needed to advocate and educate fellow group members about addiction. Without the group's understanding that addiction was a brain disease how could they begin to understand my two-fold loss when he died? While Aaron was still alive, initially I lost hope of any kind of a "normal" life as I watched his illness steal each of his dreams; but I never lost hope for new dreams. I believed in recovery; I knew it could be possible for Aaron, too. So a second new hope began to grow and kept me praying for his recovery and for new dreams and a new life. But when he died, all of those initial losses combined with the loss of hope of his recovery were re-ignited together on his funeral bier with the grief, despair, guilt, and stigma that only a parent or loved one with a substance use disorder understands.
As I prayed for consolation, God began to bring a different focus into my life. Instead of focusing on the "why" of Aaron's death, I began to focus on the "what" - the disease of addiction. I began to educate myself voraciously about substance use disorders. I received certification as a Recovery Coach from Minnesota Recovery Connection because I believed this service could have given Aaron a better chance at recovery. Even though it was too late for him, I found it consoling to have the opportunity to help others. More and more light bulbs went on as to why Aaron was unable to recover. I learned how the years of using affected his brain and thought processes. Addiction affected his brain's ability to inhibit thoughts around drug use and also caused him to lose the capacity to remember all the consequences of using.
I used to believe that Aaron died because he was incapable of being honest with himself. In Chapter Five, "How It Works" of Alcoholics Anonymous, it says, "Those who do not recovery are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves." Aaron had started lying at an early age; it was second nature to him even before addiction took hold of his life. I believed that his own dishonesty had caused his death. Today I think that belief provided the false sense of closure that I needed at the time of his death in order to keep going on. But in reality this belief about his dishonesty, made me no different than all the others in my grief group who looked at addiction as character defect.
Then I knew that Aaron's addiction and death had nothing to do with his dishonesty. I understood that why and how he died from addiction was all part of the progressive nature of the disease. This deeper acceptance of addiction as a brain disease allowed me to see that for Aaron, his illness had progressed to the point from which there was no recovery. This was the beginning my own freedom from Aaron's illness that helped me turn another corner on my grief journey.
Gloria Englund, founder of Recovering U, is a psychotherapist who holds a Master of Arts degree in Human Development. As a professional Recovery Coach, she works with individuals and families dealing with an addiction to alcohol, drugs, food, and relationships. Gloria has personal as well as professional knowledge of addiction and recovery. Her recently released book, Living in the Wake of Addiction: Lessons for Courageous Caregiving, demystifies addiction, defies stigma, offers hope for recovery, and serves as a guide for professionals, families and individuals seeking support on the journey of recovery. For more information please see: www.recoveringu.com