Stigma Stinks ~ by Eileen Spatz
The walking wounded exist all around you. We are standing behind you in line at the grocery store; we are working out on the elliptical trainer to your left; we are dining at the next table at the local restaurant. We mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, best friends and spouses who have lost a teen or young adult to drug overdose, alcohol poisoning or suicide are no different from you. Yet, sadly, the lingering stigma associated with this kind of loss is difficult to overcome, with well-meaning folks simply not knowing how to respond to it.
There is no greater pain than that caused by the loss of a child. When it is a sudden and unexpected death like overdose or suicide, when there is no preparation and no warning, the crushing pain slices right through the soul. Left in shock, we fumble through tears trying to assemble a slide show for our child’s memorial and struggle to select just the right words for their obituary. Walking around like stunned zombies, gasping for our own breath, we both dread and crave acknowledgement of our loved one’s passing. Dread, because it is so difficult to utter the words that describe the loss. Crave, because we desperately want our child to be missed and remembered.
Most people cannot fathom the depth of this pain; I know I couldn’t before losing my own son. In recent years I heard or read of local parents who’d lost their son or daughter to suicide or overdose. In sincere empathy my heart broke for them, but I couldn’t bear to consider how it would really feel to be in their shoes. I know now.
Overdose and suicide remain topics safely tucked into the shadows where they can’t dampen the mood of someone’s day. I get it! We surviving parents try hard not to be Debby or Dave Downer as we numbly wind our way through the days among you. We strive to look and act normal, an exhausting and usually futile exercise, to spare our friends and coworkers the darkness of our realities. People who love us and care for us are simply at a loss for words, and who can blame them? I wouldn’t know what to say to me!
We parents of deceased children have learned to dread meeting new people who inevitably ask us how many kids we have. There is no easy way to mention the death of our precious child to overdose or suicide, and it hurts to see the pain in their eyes as they contemplate such sorrow.
Coming Together as a Community
As a community, there have been too many senseless deaths among our youth. To help raise awareness and understanding of this tragic trend, Community Outreach Alliance (COA) and Living Life in Recovery are hosting an important community event entitled A Night of Remembrance on August 29th from 6-9:30pm. The event is timed to dovetail with the International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31st, and the theme is “Rethink and Remember.” What a wonderful way for local families and friends to publicly honor the memories of our young people who have been lost to overdose and suicide, and to offer each other support. Although the seats are filled, we ask that you please light a candle in remembrance on August 31st in memory of your lost loved one, and post to Instagram with the hashtag #Rethink&Remember #OD15.
An event such as this might just jumpstart a new and more open dialogue about these horrible afflictions. Maybe we parents who have lost children, when answering that dreaded question, “So, how many kids do you have?” can learn to respond differently, more constructively. Maybe we should respond with something like: “I have 3 children, two daughters, and a son who I lost to suicide. My son became an alcoholic due to his battle with depression, and it ultimately took everything from him that he held dear, including his life. Depression and anxiety are so common these days among our young kids. Are your kids ok? Do you need any resources for a child or a friend? Do you worry about their lifestyle and the kids they are hanging out with? I know of a great organization here in town that offers awesome and mostly free activities…..”
A great example of this new, open dialogue happened during my visit to the dentist this week. The hygienist asked how I was, and I answered that I was doing ok, just trying to heal. She stated that she had read my chart and was so sorry about my son. She had tears in her eyes. Then she proceeded to share fears she had for her own boy, and that depression ran in her family. Between the scraping, polishing, and rinsing we had a very edifying conversation that left me feeling better and her more informed.
With so many young adults abusing drugs and alcohol for whatever reason—many who also struggle with mental health disorders—we as a community need to rebuke that old stigma that has always been attached to mental health issues, overdose, and suicide. It is time to talk openly and constructively with our friends around town, to help each other find the resources that could ultimately save a child’s life. Let’s end the hushed whispers and stop tiptoeing around this serious epidemic!
COA offers many resources as it continues its quest to support families who may witness the troubling signs of addiction and are in need of help. To access this assistance, go to https://communityoutreachalliance.com/. In addition, there is an abundance of important information at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration (SAMHSA) website as well as very helpful information at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) website. We encourage you to take advantage of these resources!
A Night of Remembrance will compassionately provide parents and loved ones, in various stages of grief, the opportunity to stand up and proudly share photographs and five beautiful qualities of their children lost to addiction or suicide. The event will be videotaped for viewing at your convenience at a later date, and the link will be available on the COA website.
San Clemente has stepped up to tackle this epidemic, with so many donations of time and treasure to make this event happen, and the sponsors of it wish to express sincere gratitude. As a community, let’s say it is time to end the stigma, to embrace one another, and to go save some lives.
Written by Eileen Spatz, COA freelance writer