I started my career in mental health over 30 years ago. I genuinely wanted to help people to feel better. I have many highlights in my career, and the one that I am most proud of was the building and directing of the holistic health center that I opened in 1996. This was significant for many reasons but most importantly, it was a future for my son, Christopher.

Chris had hopes of getting a degree in social work and taking over my practice as I moved toward retirement. His hopes were to be a substance abuse counselor. My oldest son, Jason, was going to law school in California and was working for a law firm as a paralegal. Things were looking up for him; however, I knew that Chris would need more direction and support due to his many learning disabilities and ADHD. 

As I look back on my career, it clearly changed as I changed. My specialty in mental health is PTSD. I am very skilled and trained to process trauma and loss. Little did I know that I was going to expand those skills with my own personal experience. A very pivotal time in life was when Chris required knee surgery due to a football injury in his senior year of high school. After having several surgeries due to the injury and a broken back from a car accident at the end of his senior year, Chris found himself addicted to opiates. 

After years of struggling with addiction, Chris had a drug induced heart attack at the age of 23. Anyone suffering from addiction or has been impacted by the disease knows that no amount of effort or consistent love can prevent the addict from using, unless he makes that choice himself. My son wrote in his letters from various jails and treatment centers how much he wanted to stop abusing drugs and to become the man he believed he was meant to be. He believed that God gave him this addiction so he could learn to overcome it and help others to fight their “demon”. 

I made every effort known to me to save my son during the six years that he suffered from addiction. Any parent living this nightmare knows that they can get “that call” at any given moment in time. My son Jay called me at 11:58 on April 18th sobbing hysterically because Chris was found dead in a motel room and the paramedics were transporting him to a trauma hospital in Novato, California, after restarting his heart. 

His father and I were divorced when Chris was four and Jay was six years old. Randy and I took the first flight to California. When we arrived, Chris was sustained on life support. We learned that Chris lost oxygen to his brain and as the neurologists tenderly explained to us that “the human part” of his brain was dead. They explained that there were things worse than death and keeping him on life support would be one of those things.

I sank into a very deep despair, knowing that this decision had to be made and I couldn’t bring myself to sign my name to a paper that would let him go forever. I couldn’t imagine how I could live my life without him. But I also knew that he needed me just as much to let him go since he couldn’t do that for himself. I felt as though I failed him somehow…couldn’t keep that promise that we would work together and grow old together and that everything would be alright for him in life. 

As any parent can imagine, I was paralyzed with fear of making the wrong decision. I desperately wanted to hear my son call my name again. I thought I would lose my mind on days when all I heard over and over again was “ma come here…look at me”. I would have given my life to hear him say my name one more time. The last time I heard his voice was the week before he died, Sunday April 25th at 9:37 p.m. when he left a message on my cell…”Mom, thank you for calling me, you put the first smile on my face in days…it makes a huge difference for me to know you still care and love me.” I just couldn’t let him go. I wanted to believe that this was just a wake-up call for Chris to change his life. 

But what happened next knocked me off my axis. I had a dream the night before signing the papers to take him off life support. In this dream Chris apologized for all of the pain that he caused. He was crying when he said, “Ma, you have to let me go, I’m already gone. I’m not going to help others by living a longer life on earth. I need you to write my story for me so I can do what I came here for.” When he asked me to “let him go,” it was the gift that I needed to find the strength and courage to take him off life support. I don’t think I could have done it if he didn’t ask. The rest was a blur. 

Several months after his death, I was being tormented by that dream of him asking me to write his story. The January after his death, I finally opened the door to his room to prepare it for a place for me to write. It was incredibly painful for me. Chris was a very tender boy that appreciated little things in life. When he died in California, all he had left of his painful life were the special things in his backpack. In it was his comb, his toothbrush, a black set of rosary beads, a small book his brother gave him and a picture of the three of us.

Going through his room the first time since his death was bittersweet. As I smiled at funny pictures he drew as a little boy, I also sobbed when I found syringes and drug paraphernalia that eventually killed him. It was heart wrenching…how could something so horrific happen to us? 

Chris and I both believe that everything happens for a reason. I know that someday I will understand the reason why Chris had to die so young. Once I was strong enough to begin writing his story, my son continued to communicate to me through my dreams.

He asked me to put several things in his books, photos, drawings, etc. My editor suggested that I make him the coauthor of the book since he communicated so often of what he wanted me to include in his book. Lost No More..A Mother’s Spiritual Journey Through Her Son’s Addiction was released in 2010. It is my loving attempt to grant my son’s final wish.

I have been asked many times how I can believe in God as strongly as I do after losing a child to addiction. I believe in miracles more than ever since his death. All of us that must wake up suddenly in a morning and figure out how to live without our children are walking miracles. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, strength, stamina, perseverance and dedication to faith, hope and trust in order to take these baby steps daily. 

My son thought moving to California in March of 2007, to live with his brother in the beautiful mountains of San Rafael, would be his new beginning in life. It was a short month later that I got the call that began my journey to the bottom of my heart. Before Chris left home in March of 2007, he asked me to listen to a song. We both cried while I painfully listened to “Hurt” by Johnny Cash.

Johnny describes the familiar sting of the needle as it invades his skin and his words were…”if I could start again, I would keep myself, I would find a way.” I believe that my son is at peace now and his spirit shines brightly upon us…his death has proven to me to trust the moment and to believe in miracles. 

Marilyn Burns

Marilyn Burns

I started my career in mental health 34 years ago. I've always been drawn to helping others. I have many highlights in my career and the one that I am most proud of was the building and directing of the holistic health center in Canfield Ohio in 1996. This was significant was many reasons but has helped me as a professional and individual. I am divorced and have been for many years. My youngest son Chris was in social work until his death in 2007 and my surviving son, Jason, is an attorney in Ohio. He is employed with the law director in Trumbull County. My specialty in mental health is PTSD. I am very interested in helping others to grow through their pain and to understand the path to healing and recovery from loss

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