The Wisdom of Age
As I become older, my view of the world and the people who inhabit it has evolved. I would like to believe that growing older has allowed me to acquire more wisdom because of, in part, my own actions and choices as well as those of others whose paths I have been allowed to witness. The wisdom that I have today has also been due to the teachings that I have discovered as a result of the challenges presented by my eighteen-year-old daughter Jeannine’s death in 2003, as a result of cancer. Those teachings have allowed me to address much needed ancestral work that has in the words of Susan Roback, my friend and shamanistic holistic practitioner,facilitated “the healing of a bloodline.” Those teachings have also allowed me to look beyond the cover, beyond the illusion of truth, to understand that every person, regardless of their circumstances or choices, has value.
Privilege and Challenges
I had the privilege of doing human service work for twenty-seven years with individuals who experienced challenges with substance use disorder. The work with chemically dependent individuals is sometimes complicated by negative and largely inaccurate perceptions, shared by many in society. Their decision to use was inevitably tied to their worth as a human being. Many of the chemically dependent individuals with whom I worked were among the most intelligent, passionate, creative and heartfelt people I have ever encountered. Many also had significant periods of sobriety where they helped others who were experiencing the challenges of substance use disorder, did volunteer work, or just random acts of kindness for others. Their inherent strengths and commitment to service during times of sobriety was as crucial a part of their experience with substance use disorder, as was their continued dance with addiction. From my perspective their strengths and contributions tend to get overlooked by many because the focus is on recurrence of use. What also tends to be forgotten is that many individuals with substance use disorder have been able to maintain long-term sobriety without a recurrence of drug use.
A Dual Perspective
I have infinite gratitude for the teachings I have discovered in working with individuals with substance use disorders both in my former capacity as a human services professional and through companioning parents who have experienced the death of a child due to challenges with drug use.
With that in mind, I want to list the teachings I have gained from working with individuals with substance use disorders; their gifts to me:
- To recognize and emphasize the inherent strengths and assets of all individuals who cross my path.
- That labeling is disempowering and prevents us from looking at the totality of their lives.
- Conversely, that it is crucial to begin to use language that destigmatizes addiction.
- The importance of storytelling as a means to find peace and clarity.
- The importance of being a companion on the journey; witnessing without judgment.
- That survival and resiliency are to be honored.
I have had the privilege of meeting other parents whose children died, several due to complications from substance use. It saddens me when their children are perceived as less than because of their dance with addiction.
Every cause of death has inherent issues that are unique to that cause; death by suicide and as a result of drug use has certain stigmas attached. It is crucial that we focus on the pain of loss of our children, rather than the stigmas, which are attached to certain causes of death.
Here are some other thoughts I have for parents whose children have died due to substance related causes:
- Every life is a gift and serves to teach those who are privileged to witness it.
- When we embody the positive qualities of our children into our own lives, it allows us to see our children as vessels of love and light in their new existence, regardless of the conflicts we may have experienced with them or the behaviors that they engaged in during their human existence.
- It is important that we embrace the need to be gentle with ourselves and to understand that what we did with our children and for them was always based in love, regardless of how it appeared to the casual observer. For me, a deer sighting is a constant reminder of the need for me to be gentle with myself (and others as well).
- Allow individuals to witness your path, not judge it or dictate it. We are the authors of our own experience. Envision the path you wish to take after your child’s death, through your own eyes.
- Above all, find ways to honor your child, so that you can discover joy, renewed purpose, and perhaps some moments of peace.
“We’re meant to engage in all kinds of things on earth- things that don’t make sense from a human point of view. So take a moment before you judge your fellow man too harshly.”
The Afterlife of Billy Fingers, by Annie Kagan