In a culture where nearly anything goes, death is still the last taboo, the one subject that we do not like to dwell on and struggle to discuss in an open and unembarrassed way. The recently bereaved often report feeling shunned, as if death is in some way catching; many people feel they don’t know what to say and how to respond. In such a culture, where the subject of death causes such discomfort, the bereaved person can feel isolated and cut off from their sources of support.
These feelings are often exacerbated for those whose loved one has died from a cause that might be considered socially shameful and carries stigma. I have been learning about this firsthand since my son died of a heroin overdose five years ago. It is an experience that has taken me on a journey that has been both painful and profound.
In September 2007 I had begun a 12-month certificate course in pastoral counselling, and a year before that I had moved with my husband to a new location when he became the leader of a large, active Anglican church. My own life had followed a varied path up to that point: a degree in history, nursing, home making and teaching English as a second language to adults. My teaching role had been lost in our recent move and, while I considered my options, I decided to build on the introductory counselling skills I had learnt on a course a few years earlier.
I have probably said enough in those few lines to indicate that we had lived a traditional kind of life. My husband had followed his career and I made the choice to primarily dedicate myself to my family and to work as and when I could, around the competing needs of children, caring for unwell and elderly parents, house moves and so on. There were good times and hard times and through it all I ‘did my best’. Brought up with a strong sense of what I thought was expected of me, within a vaguely Christian but not strongly religious framework, I had chosen a more explicitly Christian route in my adolescence. My adult life was characterised by an earnest desire to do well in all my roles and often by a sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing well enough. This was how I had internalised the messages from my childhood and now lived my life.
The background of my life of earnest effort and generalised guilt had thus set me up for a spectacular fall when my 21-year-old son died of a heroin overdose in November 2007, just two months after the start of my counselling course. His death, and the cause of his death, were shattering. I had not known that Jim was dabbling with hard drugs. On top of grieving for a much-loved son, my perception of myself as a responsible and hard working parent, who had done all she could to prepare her children for adult life, shifted dramatically to that of failed parent. I felt both grief-stricken and ashamed.
I was 51 years old, newly set out on my counselling course, ready to embrace my studies, when suddenly I had a whole lot of unexpected learning before me. At first, of course, I just needed to learn to survive without Jim, and that was very difficult and quite enough to cope with. However, here I want to talk about a specific aspect of my learning, and that is to do with stigma, shame and guilt.
Stigma, shame and guilt
Stigma, I consider, can be defined as bearing wounds associated with disgrace that mark you out in the eyes of others; shame has to do with ‘covering up’ – a sense of not being acceptable and so wanting to hide and not be seen. Guilt is closely linked to shame and can be hard to disentangle from it.
When Jim died I felt stigmatised, branded by his way of death. In a sense I felt unclean: heroin, a drug I associated with entirely negative stereotypes, had suddenly become part of my life, part of my identity. It was hard to tell people how Jim had died as I wanted to protect him from being judged; I feared people would think him ‘scum, waster, loser, low life, junkie’. I knew he was none of these things, and now I was forced to recognise and own my prejudices about addicts, unvoiced and dormant, but there nevertheless. In the background of my mind I always had this niggling feeling: if he had to die, could it not have been of something easier to own up to, something that didn’t make me feel so guilty and ashamed? It seemed self-evident to me that, if Jim had died of drugs, then I was a bad mother and had failed in my primary role to build in him a sense of his own worth that might have protected him against bad decisions. I did not need a court to declare me guilty: I was quite able to do that myself. I felt our home environment must have been lacking and everything I had worked so hard for had fallen to pieces. Because of our semi-public role in the community, I found these feelings even harder to bear. Wherever I went locally, and when I attended worship on Sundays, I had to publicly bear my disgrace, or so it seemed to me then. ‘There goes that woman whose son died of a heroin overdose.’ I felt horribly exposed to the inevitable curiosity that such an event would generate. The rawness of my emotions felt almost like physical pain.
I felt deeply ashamed. Like a wounded animal, I wanted to crawl away to a den, anywhere I could be alone, to nurse my sorrow and lick my wounds. I was so proud of Jim and loved him with a fierce and defensive parental love; I couldn’t understand how this had happened or what had gone wrong and I wanted to protect him in death, just as I had tried to do in life when he was younger. It hurt so much. I felt torn between wanting to keep myself isolated, as I felt no one could understand how dreadful I felt, and yet also longing for connection with others who could understand.
I had to ask myself and try to answer as honestly as I could if we were to blame in some way. Had we unwittingly given Jim a sense of expectation he couldn’t live up to? I wondered whether life as the child of a clergyman had put additional pressure on him, causing him to feel vulnerable in the eyes of his peers, and making him feel he had to prove himself one of the lads. I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, of course.
For some time it felt to me that all these feelings and all the self-questioning were a result of my particular background and outlook on life. I had suddenly been thrown into all of this and understood little about drugs and the issues faced by the families of drug users. It was only when I began to grow stronger, to raise my head a little and listen to the voices of others, that I realised my responses were shared by many other people whose loved ones were addicted to drugs and alcohol. A recent report by Adfam, Challenging Stigma,1 tackles the issue head on, recognising that families are the best means of support for a person who is abusing drugs or alcohol. Yet the culture of blame and stigma that attaches to the family, as well as to the user, makes it difficult for them to access the support they themselves need in order to be able to support their family member. There are still instances where the whole family of a drug user may be removed from a GP’s practice list, for example, as if they are guilty by association.
Challenging the stigma
Adfam’s report is rightly aimed at removing stigma and blame as a way of aiding and supporting recovery but, as I found out the hard way, the bereaved family also has special needs. Once again, despite my assumptions, I found I wasn’t alone in feeling so stigmatised and ashamed. Since those early days, I have talked with many other bereaved parents and have heard many sad stories. One parent told me that he preferred to say his child had died in a car crash, rather than own the truth, for fear of judgment. It can easily be imagined how this would halt any healthy bereavement process. Another parent described how she felt she had lost the right to be heard or listened to on anything, because her child had died as a result of drug use. I discovered only recently that my own father, now deceased, preferred to tell his friends that his grandson had been murdered; perhaps he simply couldn’t bring himself to believe that his Jim had become a drug user.
As for me, I knew quite early on that, despite the painful feelings, I was not prepared ‘to put up and shut up’. I had a choice, I realised. Though my desire was to cringe away and hide, I could choose to put myself out there, and do my best in my own small corner, to hold my head up anyway, to look people in the eye and say, ‘Jim died of a heroin overdose.’ Facing the issue head on, I decided, was one way to begin to break down the stigma I and many other people were feeling. Keeping silent would say to others that I was ashamed of him and would prefer to bury his memory and the truth of who he was, to deprive his nieces and nephews of a chance to hear about their funny uncle they never met, to make the world a slightly darker place and to assign him ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ status. Never!
So this is what I’m doing to the best of my ability. I’ve written his story, spoken about him, his life, his death and how it has affected us as a family. I’ve taken any opportunity to warn of the dangers of playing around with drugs. I’ve just done whatever I can to keep him and his memory alive. I hope that in the process I have reminded other people like me, who cannot imagine such a terrible thing happening in their family, that the reasons people fall into drug use are messy and complicated; that each person who becomes an addict has their own story and families and friends who are deeply wounded but care hugely about them.
Making meaning from loss
Having managed to complete my certificate during all this, I decided to take the counselling further and went on to complete a postgraduate diploma in 2010. I suspect it is common to feel taken apart in the process of taking a counselling course, as your very self is exposed and laid bare. I certainly found it to be one of the hardest things I have ever done, and it was made even more so by my circumstances of raw grief. I was drained and tested to the limit, as I was forced to look at the whole of who I was in order to prepare myself for this new career. For the first time in my life, as I studied, reflected and attended my own counselling sessions over three years, I came to realise that actually I was OK.
At last I was able to accept this, not just in theory but at a deep, soul level.
Concurrent spiritual reading, often related to bereavement and separate from my academic books, overlapped in remarkable ways with all I was absorbing on my course. The shock of losing Jim has opened me to learning so much more than I ever would have, I suspect, limited as I was by my lifetime of anxieties and insecurities. It is as though, by ripping away these coping mechanisms, the tragedy and its aftermath have exposed my soul and allowed new growth to begin. Of course I would never have chosen any of this but I must take what I can from the tragedy of Jim’s young and needless death. Through the pain and the heartbreak, I have been able to move to a deeper, richer place, where I believe I know myself more truly as I am: a deeply wounded and scarred person who, through grace, is becoming more able to sit alongside others who are also deeply wounded, for any number of reasons. It’s not easy but, bit by bit, I’m getting there. And I believe that, wherever I getting to, Jim is part of it all, and in this way I manage to make some meaning of what has happened.
I have become aware through all of this that there is very little specialised help available for the families of people who die of drug addiction. There is some support for families while their loved one is alive, but this tails off after a death. Yet there are very specific issues that will need to be dealt with. It took me a full two years after Jim’s death before I found others who knew about the issues around drug-related death and understood them, because they had lived them too. Put in touch with a charity called DrugFam,2 I was at last able to talk with others in a place where I felt safe. After a long time in the wilderness, I met others who understood ‘from the inside’, who knew all about the shame, stigma, loneliness and feelings of having failed your loved one. There was enormous comfort in this. Others also understood the secret fear that your loved one might not be valued much by others, that your grief is somehow invalid because ‘after all it was his decision to take drugs’. Many of the feelings will be familiar to those bereaved by suicide and in other ways, I know; it’s not only drug use that is shameful in our society.
So, five years on, my life has changed and I have changed. With awful loss has come growth in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I miss knowing Jim now, and the young man he was growing into. I miss seeing how he might have made his mark on a needy world where he was set to do so much good. I miss his music and his dry sense of humour. So much has gone. And yet I strongly believe that, in his death, he has been an inspiration to me, cheering me on and encouraging me to rise to the next challenge. In a mysterious way, my ongoing love for him, and determination not to let the drugs have the last word, has given me courage. I was at one time happy to ‘keep my head down’; those times are gone. I am grateful.
Philippa Skinner (MBACP) completed a postgraduate diploma in pastoral counselling in 2010, having had earlier careers in nursing and teaching. She now works with Rape and Sexual Abuse (RASA) Merseyside, and the Chester Diocesan Counselling Service. More information about the issues in this article and contact details can be found at See You Soon.
1. Adfam. Challenging stigma: tackling the prejudice experienced by the families of drug and alcohol users. London: Adfam; 2012. http://www.adfam.org.uk/docs/adfam_challenging_stigma.pdf
2. See http://www.drugfam.org.uk
Disclaimer and copyright