We suffered the most devastating of losses last spring, when after 10 months of sobriety, our 29-year-old son Nick passed away, a victim of the opioid epidemic. My heart is broken. When I think back to when this insidious disease took hold of his life, I realize that in some ways it took hold of ours, too.
A couple of years before our son’s death, my husband and I joined a support group for loved ones of people suffering from substance use disorder. As it happens, most of the regulars at our local meetings were parents like us, whose adult children were around the same age as our son.
The group was instrumental in educating us about the disease, its effects on the addict and his family, and about the various paths to recovery. An experience shared by one was usually similar to one shared by another, and in such sad circumstances there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone. As a group, we were always up-to-date with the status of our kids’ journeys: who was experiencing a period of sobriety, doing well, in detox, flirting with rock bottom, or most frightening of all, not answering our calls or texts. The strength that came from this shared experience was a balm for me.
Over the years, we got to know one another’s adult children by their first names, along with their big and often complicated personalities. While we were comfortable sharing our sadness or expressing our frustrations, we also felt at ease sharing funny anecdotes about our kids, which would make us smile and laugh, because regardless of their struggles, they are always still just our kids.
When Nick lost his battle with addiction, this group was there just as immediately as our closest friends and family, bringing food, giving hugs and prayers in equal measure, offering walks and space to talk, cry, or rage. They were the first ones on the reception line at our son’s service. We are grateful to them.
But in the months since my son’s passing, I’ve attended only two virtual meetings of the weekly group (because of COVID, in-person meetings haven’t resumed). I am conflicted about it — I don’t want to abandon these extraordinarily caring people who didn’t abandon me. Yet, in the huge empty space that is the absence of my son, it is difficult for me to celebrate the successes that their adult children may be experiencing; it makes me wish I could share news of my own son’s victories, or something funny he said or did.
I am also cognizant of those group members who might feel uncomfortable sharing their hopeful or happy news with me, lest it cause me pain. And it’s difficult for me to hear about the pain and stress the other parents may be suffering, because it triggers the trauma of our experience — of phone calls in the middle of the night, arguments, anxiety, and of the seemingly endless capacity of my heart to break, repair, and break again. Most especially, I don’t ever want to be a reminder to them that what happened to my son . . . well, I can’t even say it.
What do I do with this link to hope and friendship that sustained me for so long? What is best for the group and for me? Initially, I thought I might have something to give back — that because of my experience I might be able to offer strength and support to someone else who needs it. But lately I find that what I really want is to run as far away from any talk of drugs or addiction as I can; to shed the pain it caused and hold on only to the good memories and love I have for my son. Because, as it turns out, my heart’s capacity to break and repair wasn’t endless after all.
Lisa Greggo is a writer in Weymouth. She is working on a memoir about foster care, adoption, and search and reunion. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.