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Healing from the death of a loved one is made more difficult if the death is sudden and if the death is from an illness where society judges it from one's own hand, such as addiction or suicide. The family of a child who dies suddenly of a drug overdose is a circle of stunned and traumatized people, who, though they love each other, may be completely unable to support one another in the aftermath of such a shocking loss. Each one moves through their days, just trying to keep their head above the water line of sucking grief to prevent it from pouring down their throat and drowning them. They move in a small orbit of survival, often unable to comfort each other. When they may have the strength to reach out to each other, it may not be when the comfort was needed or what was needed.

The family of a terminally ill person may have time to gather around their loved one prior to the death, hug and kiss their loved one, share stories, offer forgiveness to each other, maybe even laugh together. There is no such scene for someone who dies of a drug overdose. Unlike a person with a terminal illness who may have accepted their impending death and perhaps even "glimpsed Heaven" as their death became imminent, the person with the illness of addiction who dies from an accidental overdose often dies alone, with no awareness that they are at the end of their life on Earth. There is no opportunity for families and their loved ones who overdosed to say things that they may have needed to say to each other. Such as words of making amends, of forgiveness, of love, of honoring their loved ones for their courage in the face of the addiction, or of instructions given regarding what they were leaving behind. No last hug, no clasping of fingers, no cradling their loved ones' cheeks in their cupped hands.

I was often beside myself with remorse and regret that we didn't have those last moments with Ethan. Our relationship with Ethan as parents had been marked for so long with angst, fear, unrelenting worry, frustration, and even anger toward him regarding his behavior and his decisions to not maintain consistent recovery practices. There was no last opportunity for repairs in our relationship with Ethan. One moment he was simply driving back to La Crosse, and the next moment he was dead.


In the years prior to Ethan's death, Jeff and I had frequently operated in crisis mode, stressed as we constantly negotiated the decisions we had to make as our son went from a seventeen-year-old high school senior on top of the world, to a depressed, anxious, even suicidal young adult starting to self-medicate, and then to an adult man with a seriously life-threatening opiate addiction. We also both had demanding jobs. We actually managed these times of crisis incredibly well, almost always agreeing on how to handle our responses to Ethan regarding how to best support him, how to set boundaries, how to not enable him, and how to never turn our backs on him, ever. Our marriage, however, inexorably received less and less of our nurturing and attention as we were emotionally and physically tending to our son.

Often preceding the death of someone with the illness of addiction are months and even years of the symptoms of their illness slowly wearing away or viciously splintering the family bonds. Lying, stealing, inappropriate or embarrassing actions or words at family or public events, or not showing up at all-these are some of the behaviors families of a person with addiction have to cope with. Fear clamped our hearts like a vise when we saw Ethan behaving in these ways, because we knew he was not following his recovery plan. Ethan stole money from us and his friends. He attended family functions and celebrations under the influence of drugs. He didn't keep commitments he made to us. He would be a no-show for phone calls he planned with us, as we tried to be available to him in our long-distance relationship. His sister got married six months before he died, and she struggled with frustration and irritation with his lack of follow-through with the responsibilities of his role in her wedding as an usher.

As addiction worsens, self-absorption crowds out the addicted person's ability to be in healthy relationships with the people that he or she loves. These are normal symptoms of the illness of addic-tion, yet these behaviors can cause incredibly painful schisms between the addicted person and their family. Either families sharply fracture and break apart, or they are slowly worn down—my husband likened it to Chinese water torture by the stress of trying to love someone with the illness of addiction. By the time Ethan died, so many of our family's physical and emotional resources had been depleted trying to help our son during the eight years of his ill-ness. Too many of our family's conversations centered around how Ethan was doing. Our daughter often felt overlooked. When I told her that I felt so sad about that, she said, "It is nothing you could have changed, Mom. We all suffered each in our own way."

The price of sacrificing attention to our marriage for all of these years was actually most evident when Ethan seemed to be doing better and we became more aware of our disconnection and estrangement. I, especially, threw myself into helping Ethan. I tried to pour into his heart and mind all of my fierce love, boundless energy, strength, and my expertise in the field of behavioral health and substance abuse. But I learned that love alone, a mother's fierce love, cannot heal an ill child, or a family fractured by that child's terminal illness of addiction.

All over the United States, fractured families similar to ours suffer tragically in part due to the impact of greed upon the human heart. With the relentless marketing and sales of Oxycontin, the Sackler family has profited from the suffering of thousands of families who are grieving the deaths of their loved ones to opioids.

The Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical giant that makes the Oxycontin narcotic pill which is at the genesis of the worsening opiate overdose epidemic. This family has made profits of $4 billion in just over a decade from 2007 to 2017 on the sale of this narcotic. Purdue Pharma and leading Sackler family members are accused of deceiving the public and medical doctors about the addictive dangers of Oxycontin and are being sued on many fronts by city, county, and state authorities across the US (Joanna Walters, The Guardian, 2-1-19).

Pp. 61-64. Excerpted from "Spirit Son: A Mother's Journey to Reconnect with Her Son After HIs Death From Heroin Overdose" by Robin Monson-Dupuis. Published by Ten16 Press. Copyright 2020. 

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