The Phone Call Every Parent Fears
“I’m sorry—we found him too late. There is no hope.”
“She overdosed last night and died early this morning.”
The phone call every parent fears. While the vast majority of parents never receive it, parents of addicts have a greater probability of receiving it than do other parents. Our call came 11/11/11, just after we touched down in Orlando for a Disney World vacation. As we sat on the tarmac waiting to deplane so we could spend a week at “the place where dreams come true,” the dreaded words knifed through the phone.
“Brandon’s dead—you have to come home!”
What?!? How could our 25-year-old son be dead?? It was 1:30 in the afternoon—was it a car wreck? We stumbled off the plane in a haze of disbelief and stared numbly at the attendant at the gate’s desk. “Our son is dead—we have to go back.” Waiting to board the same plane back to Dallas; talking to the detective at the scene and asking, “Is there any hope of resuscitating him?” Hearing the finality in his tone, “I’m sorry—we found him too late. There is no hope.”
We soon learned Brandon’s death was caused by an overdose of Opana mixed with alcohol. What we didn’t immediately understand was that we had been initiated into the club no one wants to belong to—The Dead Kid Club.
Parents of addicts and people who attend Al-Anon are more likely than other people to belong to The Club or to know someone who does. Unfortunately, there are no do-overs with dead. You can’t “un-dead” someone—it can’t be fixed. And for Al-Anons, who are adept at problem solving, that is a soul-crushing obstacle.
Once you or a friend has joined The Club, what are “normal” behaviors, feelings, and experiences? Grief is such an individual experience that virtually anything is normal. Some people even contemplate suicide. If that is the case with you or your friend, seek help immediately; there is hope, and there is help. Although it seems like the sun will never rise again, people do find happiness after the death of a loved one.
What does it feel like to be part of The Club? People have various responses. It may feel like you can’t breathe; you feel devastated, hollow. You may want to be dead—you don’t want to kill yourself, you just want to wake up dead one day, because it would be easier than the unfairness of life. No parent should outlive a child.
You may feel closer to or farther from your Higher Power. You may need to visit the grave daily or never. You may need to save or to get rid of all his or her belongings. You may not be able to eat or to stop eating. You may need to tell everyone you see, including the grocery clerk, or you may not be able to tell anyone. There is no right or wrong way to feel; what you feel just is. In fact, you may feel nothing for a period of time; numbness is a way to deal with the death by avoiding the feelings you have about it. For more than three years, that was my preferred method of dealing with Brandon’s death.
It can be awkward to talk to someone who is in The Club if you’re not a member. What can you possibly say to help? The most helpful thing people said to me was any version of this: “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.” Because that was true—especially if they had never had a loved one die. And even if they had, everyone’s experience is different. There are so many factors in grief: What type of relationship did you have with the deceased? How close were you? When was the last time you saw him? How did she die?
Some of the most hurtful things people said to me:
- “You have such a strong faith – that will really help you.”
No, Brandon’s death pretty much destroyed what faith I did have, and it has been a long journey back.
- “My child was doing crazy things too, but now he stopped that and is doing great; but for the grace of God, that could have been us.”
Yes, someone actually said that to me. No further comment necessary.
- “You’re so strong. I could never go through what you’re going through.”
Seriously? Like I signed up for this because I’m so strong? No one chooses this path; and if you’re chosen for it, you DO go on, even when it feels wrong that you’re still breathing, because your body keeps going. This is the club no one wants to join. We are not paragons of strength and virtue; we are people with crushed souls and bleeding hearts who go on despite the pain.
If you know someone who belongs to The Club, there are ways you can help. People who have just joined The Club are in shock, and often they can’t identify their needs because they’re wandering around in a fog of disbelief. Some ways to offer concrete help:
- I’d like to bring you dinner. What night would be best for you? How many people will be there? Does anyone have food allergies?
- I’d like to mow your lawn. What day/time is convenient for you?
- I’d like to take your child to the zoo/a movie/for a play date. What day/time is convenient for you?
- I’d like to come over and clean your kitchen and bathrooms and do the laundry. What day/time is convenient for you?
Whether you belong to The Club (or fear joining it), worry and fear can take over your life—fear that another child (or your child) will die, fear that you will never be happy again, fear that your surviving child will always live in his or her addiction.
How can you return to happiness and not allow fear to rule your life? There are several ways to help yourself:
- Get healthy physically; make healthy food choices and begin taking a daily walk or returning to the gym.
- Get healthy emotionally; find a grief counselor or group.
- If you have other family members or friends who are addicts (or even if you don’t), find or return to an Al-Anon group where you feel comfortable and accepted. If you find benefit in attending Al-Anon, you are welcome to be there.
- Learn the Al-Anon slogans that help you. Some of the slogans that helped me most and why:
- One day at a time – this helped me not feel overwhelmed
- Progress, not perfection – healing is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight
- FEAR (forgetting everything is all right) – the vast majority of the time, everything IS okay
- Ask yourself, “Is everything okay at this moment?” Usually, it is.
- Remember that worry does not change the outcome; it only robs today of joy and peace.
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you may remember Matthew’s death at the end of season 3. In season 4, his mother Isobel is reluctant to attend a dinner party. When she is pressed to attend because it isn’t good for her to sit home alone every night, she explains, “Yes, but you see, I have this feeling that when I laugh or read a book or hum a tune, it means that I’ve forgotten him, just for a moment, and it’s that, that I cannot bear.” Isobel does end up going to the dinner, and her son’s widow laughs during the dinner. Isobel is uncomfortable with that, but she acknowledges that it is time for Mary to move forward and reclaim her life and happiness.
When you’re grieving, the first smile or chuckle feels like a betrayal—how can you possibly find enjoyment in anything after your loved one has died? But we are still living, and we have a choice. We can live a sad, angry life, which I did for more than three years, or we can choose get help, seek healing, and move forward.
I will always remember Brandon. And although I have received the phone call every parent fears, I will carry memories of him in my heart as I begin to find purpose and happiness in life once more.
Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child by Ellen Mitchell
I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping, and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One by Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair
Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anna Whiston-Donaldson
The Grief Club by Melody Beattie
Counseling and Groups:
The Christi Center (A grief-healing center in the Austin, Texas area; look for similar centers in your area)
The Compassionate Friends (Nation-wide support after the death of a child)
GriefShare (A nation-wide Christian-based healing group)
Grief counseling – seek resources in your area