A reporter called to interview me about my son’s death and my subsequent advocacy for overdose prevention. She asked the usual questions: How old was he when he died, when did he start to use, would Naloxone have saved his life. And then she asked a question no one had ever asked before. What is it like to lose a child to overdose?
I thought for a minute. On the surface, losing a child to overdose is no different than losing a child to disease, violence or an accident. I don’t think the loss itself is any more or less painful. The level of grief over losing a child is only linked to the immeasurable love you had for them in life.
When you lose a child, nothing is ever the same again. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Every facet of your life has a memory of your child. Every room in the house, every trip in the car, a song, a picture, a book, a walk in the park. There is a hole in your heart that will never be filled. You search and search for answers that just aren’t there. Holidays, birthdays are never the same.
You dial their phone number to tell them something and then it hits you that the phone is in your purse — but you still let it ring so that you can hear his voice: “Hello, this is Michael. I’m sorry I missed your call but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” You don’t know why you carry it and keep it charged, but it is comforting to know it is there. That message will be the only connection ever to what his voice sounded like.
You save his clothing unwashed in a plastic bag so that you can open it and still smell his smell lest you forget. You close your eyes, breathe deep and for just a minute he is there with you. You beg, you bargain, you plead to wake up and make it all not true. You find that tears are healing. You walk up the sidewalk from the car to the cemetery and put flowers and balloons and mementos on a plot of grass, because that is the place that has his name on it, the last place you saw the box that held his body.
You hear and smell and feel things that can’t possibly be there. And you talk – you talk to the dead. You work on your religion, because you have to believe that there is a better place, another place where angels sing and there is no more pain. Losing a child is a pain like no other. It creeps up on you. You go to the grocery store and as you walk past a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal, tears begin to roll down your cheeks. When you feel so much pain, it seems impossible that people can just pass by with their shopping carts, why they go on with their lives like nothing has happened. You wonder why they can’t tell that someone important is missing.
What is different about losing a child to overdose? Losing a child to addiction means you didn’t get to say goodbye, and you have to deal every day with the stigma of being a parent whose child died from drug use (if you are brave enough to be truthful about the cause of death). You question your every decision. You look for what you did wrong, what you didn’t say, why you didn’t have a second sense that something was wrong. You look back over the years, dissecting each part of their life – looking for clues. And you look at yourself and ask all of the what-ifs. You look for blame but mostly you blame yourself. You find an online group of mothers just like you, where there is no stigma and everyone has the same questions and feels the same pain with no judgment. You force yourself to read the coroner’s and toxicology report hoping there is an answer there. And you cry — a lot.
You look back and wonder if there was a time that you missed doing the right thing. Was it the time that he was bullied in the locker room, the time a neighbor ran over his skateboard ramp with his pickup because the noise from the skateboard bothered his hunting dogs, the time he won an award at school and you didn’t come because you had to work? Did you wait too long to leave your marriage? Did you allow the dysfunction in your family to leave a place in his heart that would not heal but could only be numbed with a substance that would take his life? When he called and asked you to come to New York to spend some time with him and you said you can’t come now but you will come in a month. Was that your missed opportunity? If you had called him on Easter at 6 in the evening instead of 9 in the morning would it have made a difference in his decision to make the call that led to his relapse and death?
And then, some of us read. We read all the books about life after death and near-death experiences. We Google “overdose” and like a sponge we read articles about addiction. We read books and articles and news releases and Op-Eds. Is it a choice? Is it a brain disease? Is it a mental illness? Is it hereditary or environmental? We read about treatment and 12-step programs. We read about harm reduction and Naloxone. We learn a new vocabulary. We read about China White, Charlie and Mary Jane – words unfamiliar to us before. We saturate ourselves with whatever information is available in an effort to make sense of what happened and to try to save the life of someone else’s child. And we evolve, we change. We stop checking the “like” button when someone posts an article about a law where food stamps are determined by a drug screening. We stop shouting “Yes!!” when we see on the news that a college student goes to jail for possession of drug paraphernalia.
She asked what it was like to lose a child to an overdose. And all I could tell her was, it is like this: When you lose a child to overdose, you may stand straight, but you will walk with a limp for the rest of your life.