Here’s excerpts of a letter I wrote to a neighbor whose adult child died in an accidental overdose. I’ve edited out most of the personal data, but left the general gist.
"I’m deeply sorry for your loss. Losing a child is beyond tragedy. I’ve been with my mother through the loss of my brother (eleven years ago, at 33 years old). Because of his drug involvement we weren’t surprised, but we were shocked, benumbed, and then broken open by grief.
It’s the day after the funeral. You’ve done the ritual things. What now? I want to share a little bit that I’ve learned in my personal and professional life. You may know all of it. If you don’t it might help a little—not that anything can fix this situation. It’s just that sometimes it’s nice to have a map, even through hell. Grief circles through somewhat predictable patterns. You clear one little piece (oh, I’m not going to see him at X holiday) then another piece arises to knock you over.
The pattern goes like this Numb, during which you can plan a funeral and sort of function, then Anger, (which can hold Blame, of your kid, your self, the Universe, God, Fate, and anyone else, including your beloved). Anger can come out at the guy who cuts you off in traffic, the slow clerk, the dog, or anyone. Tell yourself it’s grief, and don’t hit anyone. Sadness is next, and it can cut to Hopelessness and Despair and Depression pretty easily. You need to keep remembering that these are inevitable feelings, not definitions of either yourself or reality. You’ll cycle through all these feelings over and over, as reality keeps punching you, and you, somehow, keep getting it. After way longer than you think, you’ll start to integrate the reality a little at a time. You’ll be able to remember your son more clearly from happier times. You’ll smile more. Then you’ll see some kid who looks just like him, and the wave will knock you down again. After a while the waves get smaller and you get bigger, encompassing more of your life, even liking it again. My mother and other mothers say you never get over it, but it gets easier. My own experience of grief (my brother, my dad, and about 20 friends, including 2 best friends in the AIDS epidemic) is that the acute phase ends after way too long and then you simply miss the person, without feeling punched in the stomach or knocked over, just missing. Here are the 4 rules for grief that I came up with for my clients:
1. Grief always hurts far more than you think it should. 2. It always lasts far longer than you think it should. 3. As a process, grief sucks, and has nothing to recommend it. 4. Slowly, it moves through.
Advice: 1. Use your friends. It’s what they’re for. You’ll figure out the ones who can support you. 2. Remember to eat, hydrate, take vitamins, walk. 3. Try to add an hour or more of sleep to your days. Grieving is physical and it’s exhausting. 4. I have no idea if you drink. This would be a horrible time to start or do more. Alcohol creates depression when mixed with grief. 5. Don’t shame yourself for how you grieve. You don’t get to function the way you’d like to. 6. Use your husband. He wants to do something (probably, being a guy.) Tell him what works. For instance. “Hold me, don’t pat me, and don’t say anything.” If that’s what you want. Be explicit. Most guys, especially engineers, are good at working to specification. Tell him he can’t fix it, but that being with you, when you want to, is actually helpful. Send him to Doug for advice. Between my family, my close friends, dying clients, and the AIDS epidemic, Doug could have an honorary degree in grief counseling. He’s learned to shut up and simply be there. It helps. 7. Have rituals, whatever works for you. Talking to his picture, religion, an altar, whatever. Time to direct to dealing with your son. 8. Support groups of grieving moms can be helpful. You’ll feel normal there, at least. 9. Some people beat themselves up for not being grateful. People who’ve lost a kid don’t get to feel grateful for a long time. 10. You don’t get to hit people who tell you to get over it, or who try to make it o.k., but you can fantasize about it. Tell me, and I’ll hit them for you.
Please accept my condolences. I’m so sorry this has happened.