Grieving a Child lost to Addiction

“To surrender to one’s own grief and become actively engaged in it requires tremendous courage. This courage is vastly different from showing a cheerful face to our friends when we are hurting. Real courage is owning up to the fact that we face a terrifying task, admitting we are appropriately frightened, identifying sources of help both outside and within ourselves and then going ahead and doing what needs to be done.” – Alla Bozarth, PhD

Empty chair

In my work as a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Certified Relapse Prevention Specialist, I find myself in circles with those walking through the loss of a child. “I was supposed to go first” is a frequent comment I hear during this grief work. The death of a child is a shock to the system in whatever way it comes. It just feels out of order and that is because chronologically it is. Death could be through a prolonged illness, addictive battle or quick, traumatic car accident or overdose. The obvious massive loss is the loss of the physical presence.  What surprises most people throughout the remainder of their life, though, is the loss of dreams and expectations. Many watch friends and family members celebrate birthdays, marriages, births of grandchildren, etc., and are caught completely off-guard by the wave of deep emotion that floods prior to, during, and after these events. While happiness for others is present, the confusion of despair, sorrow, envy, and anger at times, can place us right back at the immediate time of the loss.  Please know this is quite normal and recognize that grief does not end, it changes over time just as all relationships do.

Grief, as defined by John James and Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute, is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior. Many of us do not realize how much grief has already been occurring within our relationships prior to  experiencing a death, particularly when dealing with the disease of addiction within a family system. Addiction robs the person of their control – mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually. Addiction robs the family of experiencing the true nature of their loved ones until it is arrested in some way and active recovery is pursued.  Losses accumulate throughout the course of a relationship due to what has been said and unsaid or done and not done. When you consider all of the emotions that surround those that were processed incorrectly or not at all, you can imagine how much emotional buildup accrues within a relationship over the course of time. My friends, grief work helps with this and also with working on your current relationships to give voice to what is happening in the present and will in the future. Grievers want and need to be heard, not fixed. We are a culture of doers and fixers rather than people who are present with one another and are able to just sit with each other’s pain. This is what is most desperately needed for a grieving parent, to be seen and heard; to be witnessed, not to be told how to handle things or that their experience is the same as someone else’s because of the type of loss.

Many of the coping skills we were taught through our family systems and culture are completely inadequate for coping with grief. The main six myths for coping with grief according to James and Friedman are: don’t feel bad, replace the loss, grieve alone, just give it time, be strong, and keep busy. While any of these in and of themselves are not terrible, they also do not resolve what is emotionally incomplete within our relationships. The emotional incompletion is what causes our grief to fester, grow harmful, and become debilitating to our own present and future lives. There are ways to address the emotional incompletion and aid us in moving forward for any that are   interested to learn these techniques. What is critical to know at this time is, allow what you are feeling to come up and out. Do not think that you should be done grieving by a certain time frame, even if it has been years. Your child will always be your child, whether the child was in utero or 65 years old at the time of physical death. “I should have gone first” does not appear to go away over time, but the pain of the statement can lessen over time when work is done to address it each time it appears.

My friends, it is so important to realize, your feelings are normal and natural. Common responses to grief are reduced concentration, a sense of numbness, disrupted sleeping patterns, change in eating habits, and a vast array of emotional energy types. You may have an emotional experience of riding a roller coaster with dips, turns, drops, and sudden jerks and stops. Many people think they are clinically depressed, having anxiety attacks, or just plain losing their minds. You are most likely just going through the grieving process. You will need to follow through with practical actions to aid  you in releasing your feelings about the significant change in your life and support system. Some of these may include seeking out a grief therapist, regularly visiting your primary care physician or obtaining a psychiatrist, increasing support group involvement, and increasing religious affiliation activities or social activities. There is to be no shame in needing to be with people or needing space and time alone. You will have different needs at different times. Learn to listen to your heart and your body, not just your thoughts.

father grievingThe deeper the love, the deeper the pain of the loss. As a mother, I can think of no greater pain than losing a child. Since grievers need to be heard and not fixed, it is vitally important you are not told how to feel, but just allowed to experience what is naturally occurring. We do not need to say to each other “I know how you feel.” Many of us make this mistake because we have suffered the same type of loss. But every relationship is unique and special. We can relate to feeling states, but we are not able to say we know just how each of us feels about the relationships we have had. This comment truly diminishes the importance and significance of the moment for the griever and can shut them down from sharing at all. Most comments people hear following a loss are intellectually accurate, but emotionally barren. These may be “he’s in a better place” or “they are not suffering anymore” or I have even heard said to people “thank God you can still have more children.” People mean well and I have meant well when I said some of these comments. These comments promote further emotional isolation in the grieving process due to being misunderstood or just simply not heard. Please remember grief is about the griever, not about the person who has already died.

Friends, grief is not about a broken brain. It is about a broken heart. All of the intellectual work in the world will not fix the broken heart. Heart work must be done. The emotional and spiritual connections of the relationships must be addressed, not just the intellectual part of the relationship. James and Friedman say that trying to do heart work intellectually is like trying to paint with a hammer. You just keep making big holes and a big mess. Specific actions of looking at our relationships holistically, identifying what is emotionally incomplete and addressing that directly need to be done to have freedom from the internal trap of grief and being consumed by it. We are each in the process of creating a “new normal” and this work may need to be done several times over the course of your life due to new realizations of loss within the relationship that you are grieving.

What do I actually do you ask?

Decide ways you may want to honor your child, such as having a picture, a special ornament, a prayer, a poem, creating some form of new tradition, ensuring that you continue any old traditions you may want to keep, putting flowers on the gravesite, going to a special place where you share memories, telling old stories of holidays and birthdays before.

Allow yourself to have each feeling you experience and take it a step further, share those feelings with someone whom you deem as safe. Each of us need a safe person – by this I mean someone who is non-judgmental and can be an objective listener for you. They will not stop your feelings or their expression. They will not change the subject or get up and leave. They will allow you to experience what is going on and just be present with you. Point blank, allow at least one person in, into your

heart, into those tough, vulnerable and raw places. When we do this, we allow God to help us through others and experience the true love and care of our neighbor.

Here are some “do not” suggestions:

  • Do not ignore the loss and absence
  • Do not ignore or bury any feelings about it
  • Do not ignore the changes in the holidays/anniversaries/birthdays for you
  • Do not isolate yourself emotionally
  • Do not avoid all social gatherings

Here are some “to do” suggestions:

  • Make a gratitude list
  • Make a time at family gatherings/social gatherings to tell funny memories and stories
  • Make a time to reflect in silence
  • Make allowance for yourself to feel it all – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. It is all there.
  • Make new memories while also honoring the old ones
  • Make time to touch and honor possessions of your child. Then make different piles – give away, donate, throw away, and keep. Also have an “I don’t know yet” pile. Do this over and over again until all of the belongings of your child have been gone through, personally touched, and are completed. Do this in the presence of a safe person to aid you in storytelling while you are going through these actions.
  • Make your presence count while you are here physically with all of your loved ones in a positive way
  • Make tears and laughter priorities in your life – having a full range of emotions expressed is healthy.

Loss is an opportunity for spiritual development. This is a choice and a choice I hope you will make for yourself. We can have recovery from our losses, and this increases our spiritual development as human beings. What does recovery mean?

“Recovery means feeling better. Recovery means claiming your circumstances instead of your circumstances claiming you and your happiness. Recovery is finding new meaning for living, without the fear of being hurt again. Recovery is being able to enjoy fond memories without having them precipitate painful feelings of regret or remorse. Recovery is acknowledging that it is perfectly all right to feel sad from time to time and to talk about those feelings no matter how those around you react. Recovery is being able to forgive others when they say or do things you know are based on their lack of knowledge about grief. Recovery is one day realizing that your ability to talk about the loss you’ve experienced is indeed normal and healthy.” (The Grief Recovery Handbook, James and Friedman, p. 6-7)

ForAParentontheDeathofaChild –by John O’Donohue From

“To Bless The Space Between Us”

No one knows the wonder
Your child awoke in you,
Your heart a perfect cradle
To hold its presence.
Inside and outside became one
As new waves of love
Kept surprising your soul.
Now you sift bereft Inside a nightmare,
Your eyes numbed
By the sight of a grace
No parent should ever see.
You will wear this absence
Like a secret locket,
Always wondering why
Such a new soul
Was taken home too soon.
Let the silent tears flow
and when your eyes are clear
Perhaps you will glimpse
How your eternal child
Has become the unseen angel
Who parents your heart
and persuades the moon
To send new gifts ashore.

Guest post by Maggie Banger, Licensed Professional Counselor, LPC-S, NCC, Restore Counseling Services

About Maggie Banger:

“I enjoy working with adults who are struggling with grief, anxiety, depression, spirituality, individuation, vocation, and addiction issues. I am passionate about helping people find fulfillment in their lives through embracing total wellness. I believe seeing worth as an individual is critical to a healthy spiritual outlook and to cultivating hope. Restore Counseling Services is birthed out of a spiritual desire for all to see hope manifested in daily life through practical application of spiritual principles.”

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