After losing my son Matt a few years ago, I felt like I had inherited the elephant. You know the one I’m talking about- the elephant in the room that no one will acknowledge, let alone talk about. This elephant follows me around like a lost dog, except he’s so much bigger and harder to ignore.
I inherited this elephant shortly after the death of my youngest son, Matt. He died from an overdose of prescription drugs. He never touched street drugs, and I never thought he would die.
I was left behind trying to come to terms with this tragedy, and attempting to navigate this new life without my son. Mothers are not supposed to bury their children. It goes against nature, and shatters our dreams for the present, and our hopes for the future. Shifting the axis of our lives, it leaves us unbalanced, and spinning out of control. We expect to leave them behind. Our children are our legacy. Our children are expected to carry on for us after we are gone.
Throughout my journey, I’ve come to understand and accept the fact, that until someone has experienced this life altering loss and felt this heart shattering grief, that knowing what to say to a mom like me is inconceivable.
Being so shrouded in grief, I never thought about the impact that my tragedy had on friends and family. I witnessed their uneasiness, and watched as they danced around my elephant. Gatherings became uncomfortable, conversations were forced. No one mentioned Matt’s name, or acknowledged my loss. Invitations became scarce, as friends faded away.
Soon my grief was accompanied by my new friend – loneliness. Spending many days by myself gave me the soul-searching experience of understanding that grief scares the hell out of people. Grief by itself is tough enough, but add the emotions and guilt that flood your brain after losing a child to addiction, and you’ve created a barrier most people don’t know how to penetrate.
I’ve also come to understand that until someone has shared, and can understand this life altering grief (which I don’t wish on anyone), it is impossible to imagine the impact their behavior and words could have on a mother like me, whose world has been shattered. No one knows how to act or what to say. It seems easier for friends to disappear into the sunset, then to accept the grieving me.
One day, out of the blue, I received a phone call from a woman I had never met. She read my blog and needed help. Her best friend had joined my club- her son overdosed after years of struggling with addiction. This amazing woman wanted to know how to help her friend. Rather than running away, this woman was asking for help in order to learn how to remain a friend to this grieving mother.
Listening to her opened my floodgates. Here was this woman, a stranger, reaching out to me when so many of my friends had disappeared. She showed the compassion that I so needed from those who abandoned me. She wanted to speak with someone, a mother, who knew this grief, and to understand how to be there for her friend.
This was perfect timing for me. It was the day after Matt’s birthday. My grief was still raw, my eyes still swollen. I took a deep breath, and began to share my deepest pain with this caring heart. My advice was…. just show up. Don’t call and ask if she wants company. She is isolating herself in her grief. If you ask permission, she will find a million reasons to tell you to stay away.
Accept the Elephant. Talk about her child. Share your memories. Say their name. Our children were a large part of our lives. Death has changed nothing. Her child is a part of her heart, and lives on in her memories. Allowing her to talk about her child, helps heal her grieving heart.
Allow her to cry in your presence. Cry with her. Wrap her in your arms and allow her to sob.
Never tell her it will be ok- because it will never be ok. She buried her child along with her hopes and dreams for their future. The world as she knew it has spun out of control. It will never return to normal.
Don’t force her to go out in public. Seeing happy families is very painful. Bring food and flowers. Surround her with her favorite things. Give her time to accept her loss. Spending one on one time with a loving friend is a precious gift.
Never tell her “it’s been…” or “you should be…”. I’ve heard that so many times I wanted to scream. Believe me, she knows exactly how long it’s been, and most likely is full of guilt for not being who she was before losing her child.
Support her through the first holidays. Reminders of her loss will surround her everywhere she turns. Family traditions take on a different meaning. Her family has changed, and she needs time to adapt. Don’t be upset if she declines invitations to holiday parties. Refrain from forcing her to join in the festivities. She needs to navigate a new life, and the holidays are a brutal time for a grieving mother. Instead, ask what she is able to do and offer help.
Please suggest a Grief Therapy group. Knowing I wasn’t alone on this grief journey was the greatest gift. Being surrounded by those who understood, and who were also learning to live with this same loss, helped me get through the darkest of days.
Most importantly, you must remember that the loss of a child is the greatest pain a mother will ever experience. Navigating through the grief of losing a child, is a lifelong process. This is the one loss that time does not heal. Weddings and baby showers are now bittersweet. She will never be the mother of the bride or groom. She will never know the joy of holding her child’s firstborn.
Losing a child alters the future and stays with us forever. Time is full of reminders and regrets of what should have been and what is. Learning not to fear “the elephant”, and loving her for who she will become, is the greatest gift to offer a grieving mother.
MaryBeth Cichocki is a retired registered nurse living in the state of Delaware. She is also the author of “Letters To Matt”, which shares her struggle to survive after losing her son Matt to a drug overdose. MaryBeth now spends her time advocating and writing about the disease of addiction. She started a blog shortly after Matt died titled Mothers Heart Break, ( mothersheartbreak.com ) which tells the story of Matt’s addiction and continues into the present as she deals with complicated grief. MaryBeth also facilitates a support group for those suffering the loss of a loved one due to the disease of addiction. (Support After Addiction Death). MaryBeth has testified in her states Capitol during the Joint Finance Committee hearings, sharing her story of the difficulty she experienced while trying to find comprehensive treatment for her adult son during his addiction. She works with legislators in her state to implement changes in how the disease of Substance Use Disorder will be treated in the future. She played a pivotal role in the passing of six Bills in Delaware related to treatment for those suffering from Substance Abuse Disease.