This is How Grief Actually Feels After an Overdose Death

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My brother, Ross, and me at my wedding.

He was my little brother – the mischievous boy that loved the outdoors, wanted to live life to the fullest, and was fiercely loyal and compassionate. The heartbreaking reality is that he struggled with opioid addition for over half his life, he spent most of his time hiding from the outside world, he was consumed by sadness, and he was abandoned by many of the very people he was most loyal to and loved so deeply.

I grieved the loss of him for well over a decade while he was still alive. Death didn’t actually steal him from us; drugs did. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming to witness your once-best friend wither away and be consumed by a gripping force so strong that recovery is nearly impossible. You desperately want to help, but are powerless to do so. You can’t understand why free will isn’t the answer and why he couldn’t “just say no.” You feel betrayed by the lies, the manipulation, the theft, the tender words that your ears hear and your heart longs to believe. You dare to hope another stint of rehab will be the solution and this time things will be different. After all, how can you give up optimism that the God you trust to be so big and mighty won’t one day rescue him from his addiction and give him happiness? It’s possible. “Change really could happen one day,” you tell yourself.

In order to cope, I chose to distance myself from him. I had three small children and couldn’t bare to watch what the drugs were doing to him, let alone expose my children to such destructive behavior and ugliness. The distance was my survival mechanism. I tried to tell him I would always love him no matter what and that an olive branch of forgiveness would forever be available, but I don’t really know that he ever understood the genuineness of those words. Maybe he did. Regardless, I find comfort in the fact that I truly did mean them from the very bottom of the depths of my heart.

And then the call that I feared for so many long years actually came. It was May 3rd, my dad’s 63rd birthday. The words seemed so familiar, almost like I’d heard them before, “he’s dead.” And I felt numb. And angry. And guilty. “What could I have done differently to help him?” I asked myself. “Could I have tried harder? Did he know how much I truly loved him? How could this have happened? He had a world of promise and possibilities at his fingertips if he had only seized them. This is all so wrong.”

In the days that followed, the world told me how sorry they were for my loss and I believed they meant it. After all, what else could they say to make it any better? I certainly wouldn’t have had more appropriate words for someone else in the same situation. My heart ached. I vaguely recalled the five stages of grief and wondered how long it would take for me to reach the acceptance stage. The pretty flowers really did help me to smile. The memories of the “good times” sustained me. But all of this didn’t help quench that feeling of guilt. “Is this what other people feel like when they lose a loved one to sickness, an accident, or to natural causes? Why do I feel so guilty? I’m not the one who made bad choices.” And the unending question replayed over and over in my head, “what could I have done differently to help him?”

Moreover, there was the sadness of watching my parents grieve the loss of their only son. My warrior mom did everything possible she could think of to help him beat addiction. She would have traded her very last breath to give him peace. I saw her grappling with the same questions, “What could I have done to prevent this? To help him?” And that’s when it began to hit me – this guilt we feel is and will always be unavoidable. And while my own regrets stem from shutting him out, my mom feels remorseful for other reasons. It can’t be denied. Guilt is an added challenge when you experience the loss of a loved one to drug overdose. Guilt is normal under these circumstances. There will forever be so many unanswered questions. The questions were there even before his death and, sadly, they will never be resolved. And at some point, I’m going to have to accept this fact.

My name is Valerie Leonard and I want to end the opioid epidemic. We all have so much work to do and our God is big enough to graciously and lovingly go before us. If you want to help, please consider donating to His Way Ministries in Huntsville, Alabama, a non-profit Christian organization who tried to help my brother and is continuing to fight the good fight.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me….Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:35-36, 40