Ask an Expert: How Can I Get Over My Son's Death?
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Today's question is on whether it is possible to move beyond the death of a child, and how to do it. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Ask an Expert."
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EDITOR'S NOTE: "Ask An Expert" is guidance for the general public. Responses from our experts are not to be construed as doctor/patient relationships, which require private and extensive consultation.
Several months ago I lost my 17 year old only child to a heroin overdose. I have been unable to cope with the grief and guilt. It has led to the dissolution of my marriage and I find it hard to even function at work. I am in therapy and on antidepressants, but nothing is helping. I am not suicidal, but I am turning to alcohol to numb my feelings. Sometimes it's the only thing that gives me relief. I see the irony of using chemicals to cope with pain when that is what killed my son. How long is this supposed to take? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? - Mario
Jay Westbrook: I can’t imagine the magnitude of your loss, nor the sense of overwhelm with which you are living. Children are not supposed to die before their parents, and when they do, the ground goes out from under their surviving parents.
To complicate the loss, and compound your pain, it is not uncommon for grievers to hear statements intended to make them feel better, but which often make them feel worse. Examples of these include: “Only the good die young,” or “Well, he’s in a better place” [yeah, but I’m not], or “Be grateful you had him so long” [I am, but it wasn’t long enough], or “You’re young enough to have another child” [as though children are interchangeable], or “Just give it time; time heals all wounds” [no, it doesn’t], or “I know exactly how you feel” [no, you don’t], and on and on.
It is also not uncommon for grievers to hear about the Five Stages of Grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grievers often believe they are grieving “incorrectly” because their grief does not match those Five Stages. However, a feature article in the November 2008 issue of Scientific American definitively debunked the theory of the Five Stages of Grief. There are no such Stages, and you need not concern yourself with whether you are grieving “properly,” i.e., according to the Stages. Grief is the most unique of all emotions, unique in its style, presentation, duration, and expression, and there is no wrong way to grieve.
Yes, “there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” so let’s get into solution. Right now, it seems like alcohol is your solution, your medicine, but it will quickly become your problem. First, alcohol is a depressant, so it is compounding the very feelings over which you are drinking. Second, it is dangerous to mix alcohol and antidepressants. And third, the alcohol will make it impossible to engage in the recovery work that I am about to suggest. Please stop drinking, at least for now. If you are unable to stop, get some help; Alcoholics Anonymous is really effective at the stopping part. It doesn’t have to be forever, just for now, while using the below-identified tools.
There are certainly grief support groups all over the country. Some are specific for parents who have had a child die, like The Compassionate Friends, and other are generic and can be found by an internet search of “grief support groups” and “your city.” Grief support groups can be invaluable in the short run, but seldom provide the tools for long-term transformative recovery.
There is a wonderful new book, Second Firsts by Christina Rasmussen, that is well worth reading. It is a simple, but powerful book, that presents specific ways to move out of the chasm into which we are plunged when a loved one dies, and to have a full life after that death.
Finally (and I have saved the best for last), there is an amazing technique that provides real recovery for grievers. It is the simplest, most effective, most accessible, most powerful technique I know. It is called Grief Recovery© and the Grief Recovery© Institute trains and certifies specialists to take grievers through their 16-step process. You can contact them at 800/334-7606 or at www.GriefRecoveryMethod.com. If you go to their website, you can click on “find a Grief Recovery Specialist now” and then enter your zip code and the number of miles you are willing to travel, to receive a list of specialists in your area who can help.
If you take these suggestions and use these tools, you will be able to create a full life that honors the memory of your son, but that does not revolve around mourning his death and destroying your life in the process. I know you can do this, and wish you well.
G Jay Westbrook, M.S-Gerontology., R.N, is a multiple award-winning clinician (Nurse of the Year), Visiting Faculty Scholar at Harvard Medical School, speaker and author who specializes in both substance abuse recovery and End-of-Life care and is an expert in Grief Recovery©. He has both consulted to and served as a clinician in multiple treatment centers and hospitals, guiding clients through their grief, and working with them and their families on healing broken relationships. His lectures to physicians and nurses include trainings in When Your Patient is a Substance Abuser: Currently or Historically. He can be reached at CompassionateJourney@hotmail.com. Full Bio.
A month ago my wife and I found marijuana in our 16 year old son's room. He said it was a one time thing and we chose to believe him. But recently I know he has been smoking pot again. I can smell it on him and he is acting very secretive. We are not sure how to confront him. When I was a kid I smoked pot and lied about so maybe it is just part of being a teen? It worries me, though, especially because drugs today seem so much more potent than in the old days. My wife wants to drug test him, but I don't want to be that kind of parent. We have always been close and it disturbs me that he is lying. Do you have any advice? -John
Jessica Bullock: Hi John,
I’m sorry you and your wife are going through this. Many parents across the country are dealing with this same problem. You are not alone. In a nutshell, there are positive ways to handle this.
1. Be honest and straightforward in your discussion with your son. You are still the parent and the number one priority is his safety. I’ve noticed that you said you have ‘always been close.' So getting right to the point and discussing the issue will be more beneficial than drug testing him off guard and accusing him of using marijuana. This may make him defensive.
2. Be supportive and provide a ‘safe zone’ for him to speak candidly with you. Remain calm and firm. Yelling does not yield the best results. So maybe you and your wife can think about your reaction to his answers before you actually meet, so that you don't respond emotionally.
3. You are right! Marijuana is more potent than it was 20 years ago. Maybe speaking to him about your concerns regarding marijuana and why you would prefer for him to abstain would be helpful. Give him information to think about it. Read as much as you can on websites such as NIDA and SAMHSA. Learn as much as you can about marijuana to share with your son.
4. Last but not least, you may want to see if your son would be interested in going to see a therapist together. The counselor may be able to assist the family in dealing with the repercussions of the abuse.
Jessica Bullock is a clinical supervisor at a New Brunswick Counseling Center in New Brunswick, NJ and CEO and founder of Life Options Counseling Services. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in social science and Master’s Degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy and Professional Counseling. Full Bio.
I am really obsessed with food. I am constantly thinking about what to eat and I do a lot of research on diets. I am not obese, but I want to lose about 20 lbs. I try to cut out the really fattening foods but I splurge sometimes and lately I have been making myself throw up after eating those big meals. It's only like once a week. I get a sore throat and it feels gross, but I am willing to do it because it seems like an easy way to keep from gaining the weight from those meals. I know it's not healthy but is it an eating disorder? I don't really want to stop. Thanks - Cathy
Stacey Rosenfeld: To answer simply, yes, this is disordered. Whether or not you would meet criteria for bulimia nervosa versus what we now call other specified feeding and eating disorder (such as bulimia nervosa of limited duration or purging disorder) depends on the quality of the eating prior to your throwing up (i.e., Does it constitute a binge?), as well as how long this has been going on and how much your body image impacts your self-esteem. Either way, I'd be concerned.
Self-induced vomiting, or purging, comes with a number of dangerous medical consequences, and can even be life-threatening. For many, the behavior can become addictive and out-of-control. It might seem like an easy way to compensate for your splurge meals, but the reality is, the body still absorbs a significant amount of calories, despite a purge, and the behavior is definitely not worth the cost.
Now on to your splurge meals. . . It sounds like you're caught up in some variation of the diet-binge cycle, whereby you restrict your food, which leads to periodic overeating. The solution to this? Be less restrictive with your intake. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet is fine, but if you're cutting out so much that you feel deprived and then end up overdoing it, then you're overdoing the restriction. So, I would add back in some substance and some more satisfying foods to your intake. The likelihood is that you'll find yourself splurging less frequently (which should help with the purging) and reducing your obsession with food.
To get help with all of this, I'd recommend seeing a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. Evidenced-based approaches, such as CBT, are best. You can find a therapist through the Academy for Eating Disorders or the National Eating Disorder Association.
Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who treats patients with eating disorders, anxiety/depression, substance use issues, and relationship difficulties. A certified group psychotherapist, she has worked at Columbia University Medical Center in NYC and at UCLA in Los Angeles and is a member of three eating disorder associations. The author of the highly- praised Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation's Fixation with Food and Weight, she is often interviewed by media outlets as an expert in the field. www.staceyrosenfeld.com Full Bio.
I am kicking meth, mostly on my own, and need a substance abuse counselor. I met a couple who were to me creepy. One was very pushy, the other was a woman who I thought was spacy. Separate from that, what are the right questions to ask to tell the good ones from the shitty ones? I don't have a lot of people to ask for recommendations so I am asking you to help me figure this out. I can collect names but I want to be able to know how to evaluate these people. Thanks. - Carlton
Tessie Castillo: Dear Carlton, I’m sorry you have had such a negative experience looking for substance use counselors. There are questions you can ask to evaluate the counselors you meet, but that doesn’t mean that during the search you won’t come across some people who might not be a good fit. It is all part of the process of searching for someone who can work well for you.
Here are some questions I would recommend:
1. First off, ask for the credentials and licenses of the counselor. Then at least you know you are dealing with a professional. They should be certified with an accredited institution such as the National Board for Certified Counselors, The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, and/or The National Association for Addiction Professionals.
2. Figure out what your goals are and what you think you can realistically achieve. Then ask the counselor how he or she plans to help you meet those goals. A good counselor will know that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan and should be flexible enough to work with your unique circumstances.
3. Different counselors have been trained in different treatment theories or types of therapy (see a list here). Ask what their specific training is, how long they have worked in the addiction treatment field, and how often they receive continued training and education.
4. Ask about the counselor’s goals with the therapy and how they measure the success of the treatment.
5. If you think you may have other issues such as anxiety or depression, ask if the counselor has any background working with co-occurring disorders (treating substance use and mental health at the same time).
The most important thing to finding a good substance abuse counselor is to look for someone with whom you feel comfortable and can build trust and rapport. That process can take time, but if you persevere and find someone who is a good fit, it could be a major help to your recovery. Good luck!
Tessie Castillo is the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a leading public health and drug policy reform organization in the Southern United States. She is an expert on harm reduction, overdose prevention and response, naloxone, the drug war, and policy reform. Full Bio.
Our panel of experts. Click for full bios.
|Jessica Bullock, MA, LAC, LCADC, CCS, is a clinical supervisor at a New Brunswick Counseling Center in New Brunswick, NJ and CEO and founder of Life Options Counseling Services. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in social science and Master’s Degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy and Professional Counseling.|
|Patrick J. Carnes, PhD, CAS, is the best-known sexual addiction expert in the country. An expert in all addictions, he is the founder of the therapist-training International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) in Arizona, of Gentle Path Press and of the 12-step based Twelve Principles Online Recovery program. He also created the Gentle Path Program, a residential treatment program for sexual addiction.|
|Tessie Castillo is the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a leading public health and drug policy reform organization in the Southern United States. She is an expert on harm reduction, overdose prevention and response, naloxone, the drug war, and policy reform.|
|Lance Dodes, MD, has been Director of the substance abuse treatment unit of Harvard’s McLean Hospital, Director of the alcoholism treatment unit at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Director of the Boston Center for Problem Gambling. His books, The Heart of Addiction, Breaking Addiction: A 7-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction and The Sober Truth, have been described as revolutionary advances in understanding how addictions work.|
|Brian Donohue has an MA degree from Long Island University in clinical psychology, and has worked in private practice as a therapist with a loosely Jungian perspective and as a meditation teacher. He has worked with depressed people, anxious people, and people undergoing major life changes, challenges, and crises. See briandonohue.org.|
|Janice Dorn, MD, PhD, specializes in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and has done extensive research and teaching in brain anatomy and physiology. She is also an expert on addiction to stock trading and on stock trading itself. Her second book, Mind, Money and Markets, with co-author Dave Harder, is scheduled for publication in the fall.|
|Doreen Maller, MFT, PhD, began her practice in community mental health with a specialty in high-risk children and their families, including numerous families coping with addiction issues. Dr. Maller is the series editor of the three-volume Praeger Handbook of Community Mental Health Practice. See www.doreenmaller.com|
|Rita Milios, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice, author of more than 30 books, and frequent professional lecturer and on-camera expert. She also facilitates workshops and training for clinicians, therapists, writers, holistic practitioners, businesses and associations. She is known as "The Mind Mentor" because of her unique approach to “mind tools training.” RitaMilios.linktoexpert.com|
|Larissa Mooney, MD, is the Director of the Addiction Medicine Clinic at University of California, Los Angeles, and is a board certified addiction psychiatrist with expertise in the treatment of substance use disorders and psychiatric co-occurring disorders. She is also Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. www.LarissaMooneyMD.com|
|John C. Norcross, PhD, is the author of the critically acclaimed book Changeology as well as co-writer or editor of 19 other books. He is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Scranton and Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University. His ideas have been incorporated into addiction treatment by many therapists.|
|Harold Owens is Senior Director of the MusiCares/MAP FUND, the charity arm of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (the GRAMMY organization). He is responsible for the implementation of all aspects of the MusiCares addiction recovery program for artists. Earlier, for three years, he was Program Director of The Exodus Recovery Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.|
Stanton Peele, PhD and attorney, is an innovator in the field of addiction, beginning with his breakthrough 1975 book, Love and Addiction (written with Archie Brodsky) and followed by 11 others, most recently Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. He has created his own rehab program (The Life Process Program) for individual substance abusers. See www.peele.net and his Facebook and Twitter.
Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who treats patients with eating disorders, anxiety/depression, substance use issues, and relationship difficulties. A certified group psychotherapist, she has worked at Columbia University Medical Center in NYC and at UCLA in Los Angeles and is a member of three eating disorder associations. The author of the highly- praised Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation's Fixation with Food and Weight, she is often interviewed by media outlets as an expert in the field. www.staceyrosenfeld.com
G Jay Westbrook, M.S-Gerontology., R.N, is a multiple award-winning clinician (Nurse of the Year), Visiting Faculty Scholar at Harvard Medical School, speaker and author who specializes in both substance abuse recovery and End-of-Life care and is an expert in Grief Recovery©. He has both consulted to and served as a clinician in multiple treatment centers and hospitals, guiding clients through their grief, and working with them and their families on healing broken relationships. His lectures to physicians and nurses include trainings in When Your Patient is a Substance Abuser: Currently or Historically. He can be reached at CompassionateJourney@hotmail.com.
|Roland Williams, MA, is an internationally recognized addiction interventionist, author, educator, trainer, counselor and consultant. He heads www.rolandwilliamsconsulting.com and is Director of Clinical Operations at DARA Thailand (www.dararehab.com) and Clinical Director at Lionrock Recovery’s (www.lionrockrecovery.com) Online Intensive Outpatient program. He has provided treatment and program development consultation to major institutions around the world. A popular keynote speaker, he authored Relapse Prevention Counseling for African Americans, Relapse Warning Signs for African Americans (with Terence T. Gorski), and the Relapse Prevention Workbook for African Americans.|