Writen By: Marilee Murphy-Odendahl
I am a woman who lost her son, Ian Murphy-Mitchard to overdose on September 24, 2007. I found GRASP (Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing) while searching for people who had gone through this experience. What follows are my own observations and beliefs about this dynamic Facebook group. I hope you will find it helpful and that it encourages you to take some time to participate.
What can GRASP do for a person who has lost a beloved person in their lives?
Nothing. And Everything.
Nothing anyone can do or say will deliver the impossible wish – to bring back to us the person we have lost too soon to the disease of addiction. But that said, here we are – all of us together on a path more lonesome, terrible and stark than anything we could have imagined for ourselves. How on earth can we continue on in our lives? For some of us during our darkest days of despair the question is “Will I continue on in my life?”
That’s where “Everything” comes in. As parents, family and friends we search everywhere for answers to why this tragedy has happened to our loved one and to us. We spend hours on the Internet researching drug abuse; we listen to music and find equal measures of comfort and pain in the lyrics. We watch movies, read books and search the Bible for verses and passages that give meaning to the senseless loss of our children, parents, boyfriends… Some people who never thought that they would – go to psychics or mediums. Others find themselves in a church pew for the first time in years. Still others find themselves completely isolated and unable to reach out to anyone. I am glad that you have found GRASP and I hope that here you will find a place of comfort among friends where you can safely speak what is in your heart. Speaking your truth at this juncture in your life may well turn out to be “Everything”. It was for me.
One thing most people who have lost a loved one to substance abuse/overdose have in common is our inability to speak in a natural way about our loved ones and their deaths because of the stigma attached to addiction. GRASP hopes that through encouraging open, accepting dialog we can help remove some of the collateral damage to those left behind by the isolation caused by stigma. I could not answer the question, “How did your son die?” truthfully for a year after his death. Had I responded to that question by replying, “Ian died of a heroin overdose” I felt sure it would have instantly cleared the room. I would say something like, “It was an accident”. And I felt that each time I answered with some euphemistic nonsense instead of the truth I was somehow betraying him. My son was so much more than “just an addict” but for many people the fact of his addiction effectively erased every other wonderful thing that he was. To many he was the sum of his affliction. How often do you read about someone who is a talented poet and an excellent cook and (as an afterthought) … an addict? Never. When someone suffers the disease of addiction in our society that becomes all they are – reducing a complex human being to a stereotype. That kind of stigma is isolating for both the person struggling with addiction and for the family trying to help them – and it serves no positive purpose whatever! Thankfully, I have gotten past that now, but it has taken years. Far too often we who are struggling to find support in our time of grieving find instead these isolating attitudes that just underscore our loneliness. We feel certain that no one who has never walked the tumultuous path we have walked with our loved ones (children, husbands, wives, boyfriends or girlfriends) can ever understand our devastating loss. At times we are certain they don’t really want to understand. Sadly, some people will even say that we are responsible for our loved one’s death, that somehow something we did or did not do contributed to their passing. It will never occur to them that in no other situation where a person has lost a family member to a disease is it ever (EVER!) suggested that a parent is somehow responsible. This is just one example of the many areas in which GRASP participants can offer understanding and support to one another. It is important to remember that GRASP is not just one or two moderators chiming in on discussion threads – but rather GRASP is the sum total of all participants – everyone has an equal voice, an equal opportunity to raise concerns, questions and to offer their unique voices to the on-going conversation.
We are a group of people who belong to a club no one wants to join – and each time a new person makes a tentative first posting our hearts sink in unison as we welcome another grieving parent, husband, grandmother, friend or lover who has had their lives shattered. We know. We know. When a new person writes, “my daughter died six months ago and I am so angry I want to scream” or someone else writes, “No one ever even mentions my son’s name to me, don’t they realize what has happened to me?” – they receive almost immediate validation of their feelings – some person they’ve never met will write “I know what you mean sometimes I drive into the country just so I can scream in the car and no one will hear me and think I’m crazy” or another person will write, “Hold on, it might not seem possible but it will get better” or “I’m so very sorry, tell us more about him”. And so, with gentle encouragement and genuine interest a father is able to speak for the first time about the details of his child’s struggle and his grief and anger and pain. Why? Because we know. We are not just mouthing empty platitudes when we respond, “I know how you feel.”
GRASP helps people to break through the veil of isolation and self-blame, for some it will be for the first time in years they've been able to speak openly. Read some of the posts and you will see each new person responded to with welcoming messages. You’ll see requests that new visitors post pictures of their loved ones, encouragement to talk about their present state of mind, their feelings, their joys and their sorrows. You will find people just like yourself and people whose experience has led them to different conclusions than your own. You will also read post of incredible compassion for those who have passed and for those left behind. You will read prayers and poems; you will read anger, resentment and stories of incredible courage. In short – you will find a broad spectrum of perspective and response to an all-too-common tragedy. People supporting and sometimes saving the lives of people they will never meet but whom they understand so well.
You may be surprised to see more than a few “LOLs” in the postings. You might read a word or two that makes you uncomfortable. Some posting are full of raw, aching words of sorrow and regret that you might find yourself in tears as you recognize your own pain in someone else’s longing. Some postings read like poetry in their eloquence while others are as simple and true as the people who write them. And sometimes something so funny will start off a truly hilarious thread as people jump on board with their own stories. GRASP is like life – it’s all there: the ups as well as the downs.
Some words of warning: you might encounter controversy on our Facebook page. Drugs (and drug policy) can make criminals out of people who are sick and create such chaos in the lives of those who use them and their families it is hard to sometimes to parse out just where you stand on the surrounding issues. Is the “War on Drugs” working? Are our drug policies helping to destabilize foreign countries? Should drugs be legalized? Is effective, affordable drug treatment really available in this country? Who is right? Who is wrong? How can it even matter in the face of all we have personally lost? You will find many differing opinions at GRASP. All that we ask is that we each be responsible in our postings & remain open and respectful in our responses. The last thing anyone needs is to feel threatened or shut out of a GRASP discussion. Remember if you will that everyone you encounter here is a survivor of the greatest loss and emotions sometimes run high. We all have lessons to learn from one another. It is a goal of GRASP to lessen the stigma of substance death through a willingness to listen and learn. When people become angry the first thing we lose is our ability to hear, really hear, what the other person is saying. To this end I have at times simply signed off the site when I cannot agree (or be agreeable) in a conversation. Sometimes retiring from the field is the better part of valor!
The Internet is often taken to task for its shortcomings – but GRASP is an example of the best that the Internet can be. For a parent in a small town who has just lost a child to a heroin overdose and who has absolutely no one in his or her life who can begin to understand – finding the voices at GRASP may seem like a miracle. Our goal is that each and every person who joins our site finds themselves welcomed, supported and understood. Living through the experience of profound grief is beyond my ability to describe fully, but I do know that it is the loneliest, darkest place. My wish for you dear reader is that you will hold out your hand and let someone reach out, grasp it and pull you forward into life.
- Marilee Murphy-Odendahl