Handling the Grief Over a Loved One's Overdose

By Bridget Brookman 02/12/16
Being sober means feeling and experiencing. Once I was able to express my grief over my brother's overdose, I was able to let go of anger and resentment.

There is sacredness in tears. Rather than a mark of weakness, they are anti-freeze for the soul, and they speak more elegantly than Shakespeare.

I was 13 years sober when my brother overdosed. Just over a year apart in age, he was newly sober and I was thrilled to have him back in my life. The feeling of elation and homecoming was violently interrupted when he was found in an open field, barely breathing. One of his so-called “friends” called the paramedics and split, figuring he was probably dead. Unfortunately they gave the wrong location, so it took the ambulance an extra hour to find him. By the time my brother arrived at the hospital, he was barely breathing.

Every time I helped a down-and-out newcomer, I got my brother back in my life for one more day. 

I shall never forget where I was when I got the call. It was a Saturday afternoon at 2 pm. I was at a dance studio getting ready for a class. As I was rifling through my dance bag, someone at the front desk flagged me down and said, “You have a phone call.” I knew it was bad news. Only a select few know my schedule well enough to think to call the studio. When I picked up the phone to say hello, my sister’s voice crackled, “Get to the hospital right away, our brother is in a coma.” 

Every muscle in my body went limp, like someone poured a vat of novocaine over my brain. Driving was out of the question, so I called a pal to pick me up and drive me to the hospital. 

Fortified with enough caffeine to pick up radio signals, my friend, who happened to be a newcomer in AA, sped up in his '71 Dodge Dart, one headlight duct-taped to the front fender and the trunk secured with a bungee cord. As we sped off to the hospital, my mind was racing and I distinctly remember not being able to feel my feet. Good thing I wasn’t behind the wheel. I have no idea what William was saying, but he babbled like an auctioneer. In retrospect, it was just what I needed, a distraction from the dark, psychological theme park that was playing in my head. 

My brother had been struggling with addiction, and after a couple of short periods of sobriety, ended up overdosing and being dumped like a pile of garbage. The rage, despair and fear were indescribable. I didn’t know if I wanted to grab a bat and hit someone, or curl up in the fetal position and cry like a baby. When I got clean and sober, I used to hear that the only outcomes for those of us afflicted with addiction are jails, institutions or death. Coma was never mentioned. I can’t even say that my worst nightmare came true, because even in the splintered windmills of my alcoholic mind, I never imagined a fate so gruesome. 

People react to grief, pain and sorrow in such uncanny and unique ways. Some cry, some yell, some get angry but usually, it is a combination. 

My brother remained in a coma for nine months. We were told that the longer he remained comatose, the more likely permanent brain damage would be. One day, his eyes opened ever so slightly and his little legs, which had atrophied from being bedridden, recoiled as if someone were tickling his feet. I started to imagine him going to meetings with me, perhaps a little slow on the uptake due to his prolonged slumber. My daydream included him taking his first cake and expressing gratitude for the second chance he was given. But that day never came. He had suffered irreversible brain damage affecting his entire central nervous system. He would never walk, talk or function as he once did. This gorgeous man, who used to be a star athlete and could have been on the cover of GQ, was reduced to wearing a diaper and getting nourishment from a feeding tube inserted in his stomach.

Grief is like a serpent. It weaves through your life almost undetected at times, but always lingering. Once the initial sting is experienced, you get used to knowing that the head of the snake can strike again at any time. I recall seeing a pigeon laying in the gutter on its back, struggling for God knows how long. I thought about my brother lying out on that icy field, hypothermic from the cold, wishing someone would just come by and save him. As I approached the pigeon, I could see some blood dripping out of its mouth, apparently aspirating. Gently moving it so it could lay on its side, I watched the pigeon's breathing stop as it closed its eyes for the last time. “Peace at last, Mr. Pigeon,” and I began to cry. 

I found a wonderful man who worked specifically with addicts and he became my grief counselor. One of the first things he asked was what my daily good intake consisted of. "Coffee, a bagel, more coffee, water, a double espresso, water, and more coffee….you get the picture." He suggested adding some protein, cutting back on the caffeine and carbs, and getting some exercise. “You will feel better in a couple of days, I promise.” And he was right. Next, I found out tears were necessary and I had a backlog of them. I always considered vulnerability and crying as signs of weakness, rather than a fabric softener and heart opener. Anger was a huge part of my grief and it felt like a shield. I did not want to let it go. It was as if the rage kept me going like fuel for a car. I could vacuum on anger, but I could not get any relief. Once I gave myself permission to feel bad, to mourn the loss of my brother, to find solace in the arms of friends and loved ones, to find some sort of forgiveness for the perpetrators of this horrific deed, I began to heal. One important thing I learned was to surround myself with only compassionate and soothing people. There was a sense of betrayal when those who I thought should be there for me were not. Certain folks were callous, others unresponsive. When I expected consolation, some were actually cold. As my first sponsor used to say, “The road of expectations is paved with disappointment.” 

One thing is for certain, and that is death. Okay, and taxes. But every life has an expiration date, and what differs is what our exit strategy looks like. Once the rage subsided, I cried almost uncontrollably. I was exhausted and could not find relief. I wanted to feel better instantly and begged someone for the formula. Just as the steps are a process in the journey to heal, grief is a process that cannot be executed in a timely fashion. It is okay to feel sad, remorse, guilt, regret and anger. There is no time limit for these feelings to subside. I found out the hard way to keep away from insensitive people. I limited sharing about my pain in AA meetings, after having some insensitive, almost retarded, feedback from insensitive folks. 

My brother died three years ago from complications due to pneumonia, having been in this nonfunctional state for 17 years. To my consternation, I had to experience grief all over again, this time for good. John was never coming back. There was no hope for some medical miracle that would cure brain damage. His warm body lay motionless as I sobbed, holding him like a teddy bear and screaming, “Don’t go.” He was long gone. I heard once that a person weighs 21 grams lighter after they die, insinuating that the soul weighs 21 grams.

The agony was over, but the longing for what could have been was not. Post-sadness and anger was filled with regrets and remorse. Memories of our childhood, followed by things I wished I had said and things I wished I hadn’t. Remembering the last time I saw him alive, not knowing I would never see him in that state again. 

What I discovered was that it is par for the course to experience regret when a loved one passes. No one knows that when you say goodbye to a friend or spouse, it may be the last time you see them. We don’t have crystal balls, and if we behaved every day like it was our last, we may lose our marbles. But I learned that feelings aren’t facts, and that my brother did know I loved him, and that we all did the best we could, given the horrible circumstances. A new sense of compassion has been engendered as a result of allowing myself to feel bad, surrounding myself with only the kindest and most caring individuals, keeping away from insensitive people, and lastly, being more of service then I ever thought was necessary. 

The more I became grateful for the life I have because of AA, the more of service I could be to others. Every time I helped a down-and-out newcomer, I got my brother back in my life for one more day. When I saw guys taking chips for various lengths of sobriety, I was very happy for them and relieved that their loved ones could sleep well because they were safe. 

So I cried again at his funeral. For the brother I had, the brother I lost, and what could have been his life had he remained sober. There is no going back, only forward. What I learned is that my tears give me clear vision, that friends can be a great source of comfort, and that it is okay to be happy and live a good life after your loved ones pass. We all have some sort of purpose. The point of the journey may not be as grand as winning the Nobel prize, but touching the life of another human being and having compassion is by itself a beautiful thing. The only way to experience true, unfettered joy is to have an open heart and sometimes hearts break. Being sober means feeling and experiencing, all of which are necessary to move through the raging current of grief to the shore of joy.  And I know for certain that the pain won't kill you, but resisting it will.

Bridget Brookman is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, with an MA in Journalism. An ardent fan of Los Angeles history, she wrote, produced and narrated a radio documentary on legendary Clifton’s Cafeteria which aired on NPR. Previously a staff writer for the San Diego Attorney Journal, Bridget has also written for Puente House and is currently working on her second radio documentary.

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