Life is so fragile.
Yesterday was my sponsor’s birthday. I received a text from her last night at 9:58pm saying she just discovered that her 28-year-old nephew, who was a member of our 12-step fellowship, had passed away from an overdose of heroin after over 2 years in recovery.
How does this happen?
As a counselor who works in an addiction treatment facility, I am aware of the statistics. I am aware of the fatal nature of a progressive disease when treated with painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl. I am aware that this is “what happens.” I explain this to the families and loved ones of addicts and alcoholics on a daily basis.
But, as my sponsor (who is also a therapist) questioned in the midst of her grief, “how do we tell people about this stuff all the time and then when it happens to us it’s just so… surreal?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Last year, I wrote an article about showing up during times of grief. It got published by The Baltimore Sun and The Denver Post and I felt really proud of myself for writing a piece that touched enough people to glean some real attention with publications outside of my own website.
You can find the link here.
But that doesn’t make showing up in times of grief any easier.
I can write, lecture, and talk about genuine empathy and vulnerability and showing up for those who are grieving until I'm blue in the face, but that doesn't make my own discomfort and insecurity dissipate when it's actually happening.
I scrambled to find the right words to console her. I searched my mind for the “right things to say,” empathy, sympathy, relating, flowery spiritual sayings that typically just induce anger like “they’re in a better place now,” etc. My hands froze as I stared at my iPhone screen.
“I’m so sorry,” was able I was able to muster.
But that was enough.
I went to her house after work today. We talked about her nephew, she processed through some of her emotions, and continued to ask me (and truly, herself) if she was supposed to be feeling what she was feeling.
Is there ever a right way to grieve?
Anger, sadness, guilt, pain, humor even - in those moments when the tidal wave of grief tends to subside and everything truly feels like it’s going to be okay. And then the wave hits again, and we don’t know how to make sense of what we’re feeling.
I don’t think there really is a way to make sense of it, though.
We can understand death as best we can, even down to a neurological level.
I remember taking a Naloxone training class (Narcan is a drug administered by EMTs or anyone that has it on them to someone who is actively overdosing on Opioids. It's a life-saving drug). I watched a friend’s brother lay in the hospital on life support, brain dead from an overdose, the day before.
I somehow thought that when I took this training, it would help me to better understand the process of overdose and thus make me a little less “sensitive” to death. That it would minimize the level of confusion and anger and sadness and grief that comes with the passing of someone.
But it didn’t do that at all.
Knowing why something happens doesn’t make us immune from feeling the after-effects of the event. Knowing why I’m an alcoholic doesn’t make me any less of an alcoholic. Figuring out why someone can’t stop self-sabotaging is not necessarily going to make them stop doing it.
We need to also look at the how:
How do we walk through this? How do we heal?
My late sponsor Scottee used to always say, “you have to feel, deal, heal. And it has to be in that order.”
I couldn’t agree more.
There isn’t a right way to grieve.
There also isn’t a right way to show up for someone who’s grieving.
There are definitely wrong ways; seeking distraction, numbing oneself, trying to numb another, minimizing an emotional reaction, keeping oneself in denial, seeking externally to fill an internal void, and so on.
We can’t sugar coat each others’ emotional experiences.
But we can stand in the dark hole of grief with the other person and stay by their side.
And we need to remember that grief and loss are not experiences that are limited to loving someone who has passed away. We grieve and we flounder and we become emotionally untethered with any loss- relationships that have grown apart, ended, or simply just don’t exist anymore.
We can’t minimize our grief because someone “has it worse.”
Someone may always have it worse.
But all you have is your experience and pushing it down is only going to enable the emotions to manifest elsewhere and much more destructively.
No matter what you believe or don’t believe in, please say a prayer for my sponsor, her nephew, and their family tonight. Just setting the intention to think about others can take us out of ourselves long enough to show up for someone else.
Life is so fragile. It is painful, it is a mess, but it is beautiful. And it's all we've got.
Rest in peace, Will.