Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my son five years ago to a drug overdose. l battled with him for several years trying to break his addiction. He died right before his 28 birthday. I feel like I lost everything when I lost him. He was my baby. I have three other children and numerous grandchildren, but the kids say I’m different, that I don’t care about them. I do love them all with all my heart but I’m not the same person and will never be. I feel like I’m not happy anymore. How can you go on without feeling like this?
Your consistent efforts to pull your son back from a dangerous brink are clear in your statement that you battled for his self-control and sobriety for half a decade before your worst fears were realized. And I imagine that the intense engagement in this struggle must have been preoccupying for many of those years, perhaps interfering with your availability to your other children during his life, just as your profound grief and unhappiness may interfere with with the quality of your connection with them following his death. So what can be done to begin to heal the wounds within you and around you now, four years after his tragic overdose?
One answer is to begin by healing your own heart, so that it can be more available to those you also love. This may imply addressing the anguishing questions and images about how your son died: Was his overdose accidental? Intentional? Who or what do I hold responsible for this tragedy? How do I envision his dying? Was it painful or painless? Addressing such questions with an experienced grief therapist who can hear the whole story as you recall or imagine it can help you take in the hardest parts, gaining greater mastery of the trauma to lessen its intrusiveness.
A second task in the wake of such losses concerns reorganizing your relationship with your son, perhaps through writing one or more letters to him that help you distinguish between the boy you loved, and the one struggling with addiction or a self-destructive course. The mixed feelings that commonly follow such deaths can complicate our grieving, whereas clearly and cleanly affirming our love for the good parts of our loved one can counterbalance our understandable anger at their irresponsible behavior. Finding others who can hear and validate our love for an imperfect child can help with this process.
Third, developing our own capacities for self-care and emotion regulation can be crucial if we are to be more fully available to others. This may entail developing and consciously integrating gentle practices of yoga, exercise or mindful meditation, or participation in self-soothing activities such as listening to relaxing music or Facebooking or woodworking that takes us out of our head and into our hands. The key in all of these is to break the cycle of ruminative preoccupation with the loss, and make space to actively reengage a world that still beckons us.
And finally, try to reconnect with your children and grandchildren weekly, even if you don’t feel like it, and even if it requires an effort. Simply “showing up” for them in concrete ways that matter (attending a child’s soccer game, remembering an adult child’s birthday in a special way, inviting the family over for dinner, asking about them) can help rebuild the family step by step, in a way that can ultimately make room for sharing memories of your son as well.