Normally when I write, I write from the standpoint of someone who has lost a child to cancer. But tonight I am compelled to write from a different perspective for parents who have lost a child to drug addiction. Allow me to explain.
Prior to my Anthony’s death, I had always been a work-a-holic, single mom who did anything to make ends meet and provide for my children. His death created a paradigm shift in how I viewed work. I always thought it didn’t matter where I was employed or what the job description was, I would do it. If I could get hired scrubbing toilets I would take the job (and be fantastic at it, by the way) as long as it brought me a regular paycheck.
After he died, that all changed. I needed desperately to find meaning and purpose in what I was doing. With two other surviving children all I could think was, “whatever job I have better be worth me missing time with them”. Losing my son made me realize how precious my time on earth really is. As a result I could no longer spend my time doing anything I wasn’t passionate about or proud of.
I accepted a position teaching “positive life skills” classes to inmates at our local county jail one year ago. These “students” were from all walks of life. Some were in custody because of DUI’s or petty theft, while others were there for murder, rape or child molestation. Although it sounds like an odd job it seemed absolutely perfect to me. The idea that I might be able to effectively change the lives of these spiritually broken men and women in jail was appealing.
As terrible as all of those charges are each of the accused (and sometimes sentenced) seem to share a common thread, which is substance abuse. Let me be clear, I do not mean to say that anyone who uses drugs is a murderer or child molester. I don’t believe that at all. What I mean to say is that the majority of my students, who were all races, all ages, from all countries, all upbringings, all education levels- had an issue with drugs or alcohol.
Today I got news that one of the students I had met had died after only being released from jail for about a month. The reason I write this today, is this man had a profound intellect and distinct personality. He was an extraordinary human being. He is not what the average Joe would perceive as a “prison inmate” or “drug addict” or “criminal”. The reason I see him this way is because I met him while he was sober. I met him stripped of all freedoms. I had the privilege of seeing him for the pure, raw, human being that he was.
Truth be told, he wasn’t even “my” student. He was in my co-facilitator’s class. I met him while observing on a few occasions and was blown away by his presence. When my coworker called me in tears at the news of his death just a few weeks after being released from jail, I cried as well. I didn’t have nearly the experiences she did with him, as he was her student, but when she hurts so do I.
The tears fall because this man shared that common thread of drug addiction, as did most of my students. As did many of the people in my personal life. As did, perhaps, your child. And if your child died as a result of drugs- be it an overdose or a bad decision or a sales transaction gone wrong- I want you to know that your child was so much more than that that drug.
Your child did not die in vain. Was your child sad? Probably. Was your child in pain? Absolutely. Was it your fault? Emphatically no. Did their life have any meaning? Any purpose? Without knowing your child personally, I can still say with confidence, yes! And here is why.
This particular man who passed away educated, touched and inspired countless people while he was in custody. He had a profound impact on other human lives. He brought humor, wisdom, knowledge, kindness and gentleness to an otherwise chaotic and animalistic place. And he is just one of many.
In the year that I spent meeting these people, I have learned so much. I have learned more than I could ever share in just one article. Tonight, what I want you to know, is that no matter how much your child stole from you, no matter how many times they lied to you, no matter how much crap they put you through, your son or daughter loved you dearly. And I know this because they told me every single day. Your child didn’t blame you, they didn’t hate you, and they want you to know that you didn’t do anything wrong. If your sweet son or daughter could speak to you the way they were able to speak to me and the other educators in the justice system, it would bring you so much comfort.
My hope in writing this is that it sheds some light on the idea that your child’s true self was always able to peek through the veil of their addiction. They had a purpose. They gave back in their own unique way. Consider that their purpose in life may have been one we cannot relate to. I personally do not live a life that is drug related or gang affiliated. I don’t have a history of criminal activity and I’m guessing you don’t either. My guess is you did the very best you could with your son or daughter, but their purpose in this life was not to be determined by you or me or even society.
Our children’s life purposes are unique to each of them. Maybe they live to be five or twenty or fifty. Maybe they were a homeless drug addict or a great student. Maybe they lived a seemingly good life- with a nice job and loving family. Regardless of how you viewed them in this world, the Universe had something different in mind. Your son or daughter’s talents were used in times and places that you never even knew about.
I speak with confidence on this subject because I saw it happening daily in my classrooms for the last year. Murderers, gang members, abused, angry and utterly vicious people while on drugs would break down and cry when speaking of their parents and their children. In the clear light of sobriety their true selves could shine through. And the hurt, regret, remorse and sorrow were very real.
And although you may have never been able to be on the receiving end of their beauty or their moments of clarity, they did happen. And I promise you in some way, shape or form your son or daughter helped someone else and served their purpose here on earth. Their mission was accomplished.
Now the question is, how can you use the pain of all of this to launch yourself into a new way of living? A new way of remember them. A new approach to life that weaves in your child’s story. One that might shine a light for other people who may still be living in the shadows. There was purpose in their life. There was purpose in their death. And as long as you are still breathing (I know it’s hard sometimes) then you, too have a great purpose here.
By: Shannon Harris
Author: Breaking the Rules of Grief
Certified Grief Intuitive Coach and NCTI Facilitator
When he was sober, my husband’s brother, Riley, was amazing. He was caring, well mannered, and extremely funny. But once the drugs came back in, he seemed to lose his humanity. I will always love him for the man he was during those months that his addiction did not get the best of him. Thank you for your kind words.