A Deeply Personal Story ~ Grieving as a Single Parent
My daughter, Melissa, died December 6, 2017, at the age of 26, from an accidental heroin/fentanyl overdose. That was the first day of my “after”, because now I measure time by before Mel died and after Mel died. Due to the destructive path of Mel’s life in active addiction, there were many years of grieving prior to her actual death. I grieved what could have been and what should have been and what would never be.
The pain of watching my youngest child suffer through years of active addiction was difficult and traumatizing. This was made more difficult by trying to navigate it as a single parent. Parenting is hard in the most ideal of situations but raising three children on my own was a challenging task. In the early years of Melissa’s addiction, I was naive and frustrated, sad and overwhelmed. My mother was my main source of support. There were so many phone calls to her where I would cry and try to understand Mel’s behavior. Thankfully, my mother listened to me vent for years. Also, I leaned on my daughter, Shandra, who was in college. At times I would call her and unburden myself to her. I know now that it was wrong to do this to her. She shouldn’t have to worry about her mother and what I was going through. Eventually, I joined a Nar Anon group – a support group for people that know someone with a substance misuse disorder. It would have been ideal to have a spouse or partner, preferably Melissa’s father to go through this with. But that wasn’t an option – I was the one that was there for Melissa and her two older siblings, Zachary and Shandra.
As a child, Melissa was very attached to me. She was a clingy baby and toddler and child. I believe that this was partly because of the divorce and that made her need to be by me to feel safe and secure. We were very close throughout her life – even through the hard years that she was in active addiction. I was the one that received the calls from the teachers and counselors, and took her to therapists, and sat with her at the hospital after her overdoses. I checked her into rehab many times and visited her and supported her every step of the way. It’s hard to describe how the stress and pressure can overtake your every thought. I didn’t have a husband or partner to come home to after difficult days or someone to lean on when I was exhausted from worry and lack of sleep. Going to work was necessary since I am alone and had to financially support our family on my own.
My two older children were also affected by having a sibling with a substance misuse disorder, which was compounded by being raised by a single parent. They had to deal with things every day that were scary and traumatizing and stressful. When I was frantic with worry and obsessed with Mel’s addiction, there were many times that I couldn’t be there emotionally for them. My days were filled with worry and trying to help her, which didn’t always leave room for Shandra and Zachary. I was so grateful that my older children weren’t having problems and were doing well, but it isn’t fair to them that I was so preoccupied. Having a spouse or partner could have been a source of support for all of us.
For me, grieving Melissa’s death has been an extension of all those years that preceded her accidental overdose death. I’ve been on my own and yes, it’s hard, and yes, I wish that there would be a supportive spouse or partner by my side. I would love to get a hug at the end of a bad day or have someone to talk to about those special moments we experienced with Melissa as a baby and young child. It would have been wonderful to have someone to lean on those first few days after Mel died and at the funeral and when I had to go to the funeral home to pick up her urn. Having a spouse or partner to help shoulder the financial burdens of having a child in active addiction or someone that can do their part financially when I needed a break from work would be helpful and comforting.
As time passes since Melissa’s death, I worry that I will forget things about her so I make notes and write down memories and funny things she would say. I will go through pictures and videos of her and try to remember as much as I can. I enjoy talking about her every day and I want to talk to someone else about her. I don’t have that person and I wish I did. I have my mother and my family and my children, but sometimes I worry that they might get tired of it.
Though I’m still grieving and this new way of living still feels fresh to me, life moves forward for everyone else. The support that was once there tends to lessen with time and that can be difficult and isolating. I have worked very hard to try not to isolate myself from others, but it still happens. Distractions really provide opportunities to forget for short periods of time. I’m very fortunate that I have two beautiful grandchildren and I get to spend lots of time with them. They were so important to Melissa and she loved them with all her heart. One thing that breaks my heart is that my grandchildren, Brynn and Ethan, will never get to know their Aunt Melissa as they grow up. I show them pictures and videos from time to time so that they will know how much she loved them. I see Shandra and Zachary (and Adam and Kim) as much as possible and their company really brings me joy. It’s when everyone leaves and the house is quiet, that I feel the pain of missing Melissa. She should have been with us.
Being outside in nature has really been helpful during my grieving. I feel alive and closer to Melissa when I’m going for a walk or on a hike or sitting on a beach. Last year, my son and I went on a difficult (for me) and beautiful hike on the island of Maui. Our plan was to scatter some of Mel’s ashes at the top, but there were too many people around, so we decided against it. However, I felt Melissa up there as I looked at the beautiful scenery. Later that evening, Zack and I took her ashes down to the beach and put them in the ocean – it was peaceful…and sad. When I’m walking in the evenings, my thoughts tend to go to memories of Melissa or I just talk to her.
I have developed several hobbies over the past 17 months to try to occupy my racing mind; such as knitting, painting, gardening. I’m not that good at any of these hobbies, but they provide a distraction, which is good. I have so much more free time than I used to have since I’m not busy with Melissa, so I have to find ways to fill up the time and the silence. Also, I have become familiar with some groups that do advocacy work for the disease of addiction and I hope to become more and more involved. Helping to reduce the stigma of addiction and treating those with substance misuse disorders has become a passion of mine. I spent years in silence and shame when Melissa was struggling with her disease. I thought it was my fault and that people would think I was a bad parent. Melissa had so much shame and self-loathing that she wouldn’t reach out for help at times because she didn’t want us to know that she had relapsed. Treating substance misuse disorder as a disease instead of as a moral deficiency will help people to get the treatment that they need. I have a lot of regrets about how I dealt with Melissa’s addiction over the years.
I wasted time being mad at her and I know I made her feel bad about herself – especially in the early years. Our family had to go through a lot before we learned that addiction is a disease and it took control of Melissa’s brain. In time we just decided to love her as much as we could and to encourage her to get help when she was ready, instead of ignoring her or being mad at her.
A few weeks after Melissa died, I received a beautiful note from an addiction counselor that had worked with her at different times over the years when she was in recovery. With the letter, she included information about a support group called GRASP – Grief Recovery After Substance Passing ( www.grasphelp.org ). This group is for those that have lost a loved one to the disease of addiction. It was difficult going to that first meeting on my own, but I soon learned that each of us deal with grief in our own way. It has been comforting to be in a room with people that completely understand how I feel.
Last year I started participating in various run/walks throughout the summer and fall. One of these was Ethan’s Run Against Addiction. This event is to help raise awareness that addiction is a brain disease and to support those in recovery. All the proceeds go to the Ethan Monson Dupuis Opiate Recovery Program through Aurora Health Care. This year the walk/run is on Saturday, June 8th. It was very helpful for me to organize a team of family and friends called “Mel’s Team” and participate in honor of Melissa. Hopefully, we can gather a good-sized group again this year and we can wear the purple bandana for Melissa.
Thank you for allowing me to share Melissa’s story and for allowing Melissa and I to be voices for change,
Melissa’s mom, Kelly