Ask an Expert: How Can I Get Over My Son's Death?

By Jay Westbrook 11/05/14

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 [email protected] with the subject "Ask an Expert."


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 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 [email protected].    Full Bio.

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