Two Kinds of Grief for Two Precious Sons
By Glen Lord, SADOD Director
I'm a father of three boys. A son who died from complications of a tonsillectomy in 1999, a second son who is a full-time sergeant in the National Guard, and successfully living his life, and my third son, a beautiful human being who suffers from the disease of addiction.
I grieve for two of my children. One is grief for a child who has died—the other is for a child in the grips of addiction. My son who has died is no longer physically with me. My other son can appear to be in a different universe. He can be right beside me, yet I can't find him. These are both very real yet very different griefs that are inextricably tied together and have a significant influence on who I am and how I deal with things.
For my son who died, the grief is only about me. There is nothing that I can do for him anymore. The grief I have for my son who is alive is for both him and me.
As the parent of a child suffering from addiction, I am told to stop being codependent, to detach from him, to let him find his “rock bottom.” I honestly don't know the answer: I set limits, but I am still his parent. Parenting is an action, right or wrong, and I'm going to continue doing what I do when he needs me the most. I have not always made the best choices, but I've done my best. There is grief and pain in all of this.
I think every parent of a person struggling with addiction fears that their child might die, and I know how real this is. Before my other son died, I knew on an intellectual level that children die, but I did not know it in my soul. Having now buried one child, I know deeply about death and grief. This knowledge affects every aspect of my life with my older son. I once revived him and watched as he left in an ambulance, and whenever things are not going well for him, fear creeps up on me.
Today, the majority of my grief for my son who has died is filled with joy and love-- but the pain of loss is still with me. My life is riddled with triggers that can bring me right back to where the pain dominates. The reality that my addicted son is at genuine risk of dying is intertangled with these triggers.
Here is what I have found helpful in dealing with this.
I know that grief is normal: I never learned what grief is or how to deal with it before I was confronted with it. Grief caused me to feel in ways that I never had. It drained my energy and made me question if something was wrong with me. Once I accepted that grief is a healthy and natural part of the human condition, I was better able to cope with it.
I am compassionate with myself: I all too often feel inadequate and criticize myself in ways that I would never do to anyone else. I have found that if I love myself, truly accept and love myself, I am better able to deal with my grief.
I permit myself to grieve: I allow myself to feel what I feel. When I feel lonely or hurting, I lean into it. If I need time to cry, I make the time. I also allow myself to feel joy and compassion for others. Feeling my feelings is a way of honoring and respecting my grief.
I acknowledge my realities: I did not want to have a son who died, but I do. I do not want to have a son who is struggling with addiction, but I do. I used to think that acknowledging and accepting the truth was, in some way, saying it was OK. When I understood that facts can both be not OK and be true, I was able to focus my energy productively.
I reach out to others in my life: My natural tendency in grief is to isolate. I did not think that the energy necessary to reach out to others would have a reward worth the effort. I have found that this is simply not true. When I expended the effort to reach out to others in my life who cared, I found that most of them reached back in helpful ways.
I make myself a priority: It has been a challenge for me to learn that I need to do what is right for me. My decisions to pay for his cell phone but refuse to pay his rent are based on how I view the world. When I accept an invitation to an event involving my son, that is my choice, and if I choose to leave 10 minutes after arriving, that is my choice. By listening to and prioritizing myself, I am better able to help myself and others in my life.
I have honest conversations with my addicted son: I share with my son my grief for his dead brother, not to burden him, but to be open to the possibility that he too might be grieving. We have had many conversations where we hear each other and understand that we are both grieving. Even if all we offer one another is a listening ear, we make each other's grief a little more bearable.
I believe these practices apply to anyone who is bereaved, whether you are grieving someone who has died, someone who is fighting addiction, or like myself, you deal with both. Remember: you are not alone.