Sunday, December 22, 2013

Angry at Life, Angry at Death, Angry at Myself, Too

Forty odd years ago, a look at the grieving process identified five stages of grief, beginning with denial and isolation, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- a generally accepted pathway for grief that of course, isn't a rulebook.

Yet I find that when I looked up the steps, they have indeed been the ones I've begun to stumble through, although I think bargaining will be more of a series of "what ifs," or perhaps a battle with the guilt I feel looming, as there is no negotiation with death.

A week ago, when I got the call, I sat alone and cried. I had stayed home sick from church after inheriting some upper sinus crap from the children, and when my husband called after service, I told him the news and sent him on to the the grocery store. I didn't want anyone to cry on. I didn't want to be comforted. I didn't want it to be made more real by existing in some space other than my telephone and the virtual world of my computer. I sat and spilled out my pain in the blog I sent out the next morning -- the blog I've shared repeatedly and begged people to share because it hurt, and I wanted it to mean something by helping someone.

For the last week I've done a fairly good job of hanging on to anger, but I know that will wear thin after a while.

It's easier to be angry at the young man who destroyed his life over and over again than it is to deal with all the other losses contained inside his death. Just like blowing up because his lousy father didn't even come to his funeral, I know I probably have to let this anger out to move on and really grieve.

So yes, I'm pissed at Ethan. I'm pissed at him for using drugs, for not calling except when he wanted something or was so messed up that he didn't make sense, for never seeming to care about anyone but himself.

I'm pissed at him for not going to the doctor because maybe, just maybe, there was something else going on that could have been treated.

I'm pissed at him for dying. At Christmas.

That's a lot of anger and it's not all purely true, but this last week it's been easier to hang onto those bits of anger because anger makes you stronger sometimes. When you're angry, you do things you wouldn't normally do. Like laugh at a funeral. Like let myself live because the depths of that the grief that consumes me might just drown me if I didn't have anger to hang onto right now.

But the facts about what I'm angry about will help me breathe a little easier, too.

I'm angry that Ethan decided, when just a little kid in middle school or maybe just as he was starting high school, that getting high might be cool. But I know that there was a time that he was very unhappy with the heavy boy who wore glasses and braces and that he couldn't see past that temporary reality to the man he would become. I know that his friends were doing it, and that he craved their approval more than I ever understood. I know that the DARE program that had warned Ethan about the dangers of alcohol and illegal drugs, hadn't caught up with the abuse of prescriptions and darn sure never touched on the dangers of dextromethorphan, which was so easy to get and deceptively safe.

I know that despite being so much alike in appearance and personality, Ethan wasn't a carbon copy of me. That loner streak that saw me through my middle and high school days didn't run through him. Unlike my first dog, the dog he loved wasn't the constant companion that got him out of the house and helped him find happiness in a world that didn't rely on friends (no fault of the dog's, mind you). He didn't develop the desire he had to create and do and accomplish things. I didn't have the addictive genetic makeup he apparently inherited.

I know it was an innocent choice at first, and that he was lonely and angry and confused and terribly young, and by the time he started sorting himself out of those feelings, he was addicted and it was really hard to fight. Addiction doesn't go away just because you aren't taking your drug of choice, it hangs around and whispers about the good times you had. It changes the way your mind works. It comes up in conversation with your friends to remind you how you miss it. When something goes wrong, it's there waiting to welcome you back. It takes over your brain so that other things that people think will bring you pleasure just aren't that great. It deceives you, like the Devil, promising only wonderful things while it wrecks your life and you cannot even see it happening.

Despite our efforts to help him negotiate being clean and learn to function without his old friend, Ethan just couldn't. I know he did his best, and while I'm angry, it's beginning to be the at the drug and its availability, not at the boy/man who couldn't escape it.

And no, he really didn't just call when he needed something. Sometimes I know he called just to hear my voice and that he missed me as badly as I missed him. But our connection was damaged and neither of us could fix it or say the right words. The love that pulled us so close meant we hurt each other, that I was the one he lashed out at in his pain. It was probably easier to ask for money than to ask for some less tangible thing he couldn't identify. It was probably easier to lean on the friend he could find at the Dollar store than confront the tangled emotions we had toward each other. And of course, we both thought we had time, a lot of it.

I know that he cared. Sometimes he would tell me I worked too hard. Sometimes he would admit he was glad I had a husband that took care of me. Sometimes his conversation was mostly about how things were here because he didn't have a life he could share, and sometimes a rambling, adolescent tale about what he wanted to do with his life. He still dreamed of doing things, but like a kid, not a young man, because the drug had stunted his emotional and mental growth. And how many kids actually remember a parent's birthday? But just this year, when he'd been clean for ages, he skipped a Mother's Day get together when I was so looking forward to seeing him. The little cards and gifts that other moms can count on never came from him. He was a tornado, taking everything in his path and needing more and that hurt and still hurts. Those moments of compassion were so consumed by his needs, by the fact that the drugs made him focus on himself because nothing else could bring him pleasure.

I wonder why we could not persuade him to see a doctor when he was in so much pain the last couple of weeks -- not just the emotional and mental pain that I think he dealt with almost constantly (and which he also refused to accept help for), but the physical pain. He'd never resisted seeing a doctor before when he felt bad. Had he done something he didn't want to deal with in a doctor's office? Was he afraid he knew what was wrong?

I'm angry that he died, not at him. I'm angry that whatever demons drove him were too much. That God decided he'd had his share of pain (how selfish is that?) and let him finally escape. I'm angry at God, and He knows it.

I'm angry at the people who went with him down the path of addiction, not so much the kids that he stumbled into it with, but the men who were still involved in it with him and eager to help him return whenever he got clean. I'm angry at everyone that failed him in any way, because it's almost impossible to accept that something could not have changed him.

To be honest, I'm angry at me. I'm angry that I couldn't force him to be different, better, happy, clean. That I couldn't find the words that would make him change. I'm angry because there is a part of me that no matter how many times I tell myself I did the absolute best that I knew how, that I prayed and wept and talked and gave and gave and tried to practice tough love too, feels like I failed.

I'm angry at me because no matter how much I love him, I couldn't save him.


  1. Angela-
    I've read all of the posts about your son's passing & afterward. No words can express my sorrow for you, even though I've never met you or knew Ethan. I just know that it's never right when a child precedes a parent in death, no matter what the age. We used to live in Winston-Salem and had a cabin in Sparta, so I've been through Mt. Airy & to Galax many times, so I feel a closeness to you for that reason.

    I'm not there to give you a hug or a shoulder to cry on, but you have my thoughts & prayers. May the Comforter give you His perfect peace.
    Ft. Wayne, IN

    1. Thank you for your prayers. They are the support that gets me through each day like a net composed of many strands from many souls that I don't even see holding me up and keeping me going.

  2. Aw honey, you did all you can. You're not infallible, and you can't control anyone's actions but your own. You left the door open for Ethan to come back so so many times, but it was up to him to step through the doorway. You did all you could as a parent.

    Be angry. Be angry at the drugs, be angry at his choices, be angry at the people who kept pulling him back into it all, and yes, you can be angry at him too... just don't be angry at yourself. You did all you could and more.

    My family is slowly killing themselves through drug use, and all I can do is watch them. I tried getting mum out of the house and she just brought her weed to my house, so she can't come and stay with me anymore as I don't want it around my house and children.
    I tried to save my brother, and it ended with police escorting him off my property.

    What ifs will do you no good. Please try to stay away from them.

    Storm -

    1. Thank you so much and I will pray for you. Addiction is such a horrible thing and sometimes would be so easy to avert, but is never easy to fight once it takes hold of a person. I don't understand the pain that drives an addict to self destruct, but I know standing on the sidelines is hell. We keep struggling and I'm struggling with the what ifs every day. Again, thank you for reaching out to me and hang in there.

  3. Your words could have been my words. We lost our son five years ago to an accidental drug overdose. I have felt and experienced all of these feelings, especially of not being able to save him. When I read this post, I felt like it was me telling my story. Thankyou for sharing.

    1. I saw your posts this morning. I'm sorry either of us have had to make this journey, but I've found it does help to know we're not alone. It's so hard as a mother to be able to do so much for your child and then not be able to do anything. It came down to drive myself and the rest of my family crazy, or watch him self destruct admitting it was beyond my control, and praying that something would open his eyes. I'm still angry sometimes, and may always be,.Thank you for encouraging me by reading.