My Weekend with MichaelBy Guest
By Harriet Burak
On September 9, 2004, my son, Michael, died from a heroin overdose. The prior January, after years of denying his addiction, Michael finally admitted that he needed help and had entered a residential program with the goal of, in his words, “beating the monkey on my back.”
During the months that Michael lived there, he learned a great deal about himself, put weight back on and got healthy again. To all outward appearances, Michael was his old self. His doctors told us that we had our son back. And in so many ways, we did. Michael graduated in May of 2004 and came home to live with us. He was part of our family again, eating meals with us and just being together. A picture of our entire family shows him with us at a 4th of July celebration. We were so happy. On the surface life was good. And then, just a few short months later, life for us changed and would never be the same. Michael “used” and that was to have been his last time. The “whys,” the “hows,” the “might have beens” will never be revealed to us. We only have the “what is.”
Our son had died leaving behind a family that didn’t really understand how this could have all happened. In addition to the pain of Michael’s death and the grief that we were all experiencing, there was anger, sadness and misunderstanding. Yet time marches on. Although you never get over the death of a child, you do “get through it.” The grief becomes part of who you are, and the person that you are is not the person that you were.
Fast forward to July of this year, actually the weekend following the July 4th holiday. It had been almost nine years since Michael had passed. The national conference of the Compassionate Friends was being held in Boston. For those of you unfamiliar with the organization, the Compassionate Friends is a mutual assistance, self-help organization offering friendship, understanding and hope to the bereaved following the death of a child. I had had opportunities to attend in the past; however, this was the first year that I wanted to go. It was just something that I felt that I needed to do. Before the weekend was over I would realize how much I had learned and gained from the experience. My “weekend with Michael” was to change me and my ways of thinking.
I learned about something called stigmatized loss. Sadly, the public oftentimes looks upon death from a medical condition and death as a result of a drug overdose in different ways. Drug addiction is looked upon as a choice and, if it is a choice, then death from an overdose may appear to be the result of a bad choice. I learned to recognize that my son “did something stupid.” I also learned to understand that we are the people who did not die when we did something stupid. For who has never done something stupid? My child did something stupid and died.
I attended a panel workshop entitled “Death from the Disease of Addiction: Losing a Child to a Substance-Related Cause.” A child’s death from any cause is a profound loss. When substances including alcohol and/or drugs (legal or illegal) are involved, additional layers of grief are all too common. Stigma and shame often complicate. The grief process, whether the death came after a single encounter or a history of substance abuse, is difficult. And processing the loss has its own set of complications. Moving from an outdated moral model of ignorance to a model of disease, using science and compassion, we find hope. I learned to embrace this understanding and with it the mantra of “no shame or blame … just love.”
I learned to recognize that my son was so much more than his disease. Drug addiction did not define Michael. He was a kind, caring, sensitive, brilliant young man. He was a special person who had the disease of drug addiction. Michael had tried very hard to fight it. Sensitive people like Michael absorb a lot of the pain in the world around them. They take up substance abuse to get around the pain. I learned to stop blaming myself for not being able to save my child. I learned to understand that I couldn’t fix him. I learned to recognize that I could hate the disease while loving the person. I learned to believe that there is no shame, no blame … just love. And love is what I feel for Michael. The essence of the child that lived, my Michael, lives on in me and in the hearts of all those with whom he made contact. That is what lives on and that is the love that never dies. Honoring Michael’s life is something I must do.
So here I am sharing with you what I am learning, and in so doing, I am honoring Michael’s life. Although we are making strides in spreading the word that addiction is a disease, we seem not to be making strides in stopping this horrible disease from spreading. Almost daily I read something in the paper or a magazine or hear something on the radio or see something on television that brings home that fact.
On my birthday this year, I received a gift in the way of a newspaper article in the Boston Sunday Globe. Beverly Beckham writes a weekly column and on July 28 (my actual birthday) she wrote an article entitled “Money, fame, no match for drugs.” In the article she speaks of the death of Cory Monteith, an actor who had played the part of Finn on the television show Glee. Just a few short weeks before, when I had heard of Cory’s death, the news hit me hard. Cory was 31 when he died. My Michael was 31 at the time of his death. Cory had been seeking help for his addiction prior to his overdose. My son had been doing the same. Cory died from a heroin overdose. Ditto for Michael. Cory had so much going for him. Michael had so much to live for.
Beverly writes that “addiction isn’t cancer or a bullet or a virus or bomb. It’s a choice. But once chosen, it isn’t anymore. It becomes a disease.” I found that to be so powerful and it truly said it all. She finishes the piece by saying, “If Cory Monteith’s death shows us nothing else, it’s that addiction is a sickness and not a crime.” Thank you, Beverly, for your words, your gift to me. Since Michael’s death, my mission has been to spread his story in an attempt to spread the word that addiction is a disease. Your article speaks volumes.
Sadly, the disease shows no sign of lessening and is spreading wildly. Just recently the television and newspapers have been full of the drug “Molly,” which is killing our children. Substance-related deaths continue to skyrocket with prescription meds now the leading cause of death where substances are a factor. We must continue to educate ourselves and others. We can become advocates for better education about drug use and abuse, prevention, legislative social action, and fundraising for improved research on mental illness and addiction issues. We can collaborate with others to lobby in Washington. We can keep our minds open to learning and understanding.
Almost nine years after the death of my son, I got to spend a weekend with him. Not in the way that most of you would envision spending time with your child, but for me it was a weekend spent with Michael in spirit. And it was no less real than if Michael had been there in the physical sense. It was priceless. You see, for the entire time that I was at the conference, I was there because of Michael. Every workshop I attended, every dinner I went to, every person I met were all connected to Michael. There were whispers of love all around me and signs that Michael was there. There are so many stories that I could share; however, that will be the subject for another article another time.
Michael had an infectious grin, a unique laugh, a way with words. He was a free spirit. As a child he loved to create and would build the most amazing Lego structures. His drawings at preschool won awards and showed detail not exhibited in children of his age. Michael’s drawings were and are special. Yes, nine years after the passing of my son, I look at his drawings on my kitchen wall and smile. So don’t be afraid to talk about him when you are with me. I love to hear your stories. Your memories and mine will continue to keep Michael with us for as long as we are here to share them. My weekend with Michael taught me to understand that I can love the person and at the same time hate the disease. It taught me that I couldn’t fix him, but I can honor his memory. As his mother I am committed to doing just that.
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