Four years ago, Randy, my 31-year-old son, died. I took a wreath and tiny Christmas tree up to his grave the other day ― just as I have done every year since his death ― and I struggled to keep my grief in check. Getting in my car to leave, a friend who recently lost her husband sent me a message: “Thinking about you today! Does it ever get any easier?”
I wanted to give her hope. But there is no definition of “easy” that can be associated with the unexpected and tragic death of someone so beloved.
When Randy died, he was just 10 days away from receiving his college degree and had a terrific job awaiting him. He was engaged to the perfect woman for him. He’d been sober for two years. We’d had dinner together two days before his death. Just before I left, he’d given me his signature bear hug.
The following night, Randy went out to run errands, and his fiancee went to bed early with a headache. In the early morning hours, she found Randy dead on the kitchen floor from an accidental overdose of heroin and fentanyl. Where he went that night and why he did what he did is a mystery to most everyone who knew and loved him.
Sadly, it wasn’t a mystery to the many drug counselors who’d worked with Randy. Over the 12 years prior to his death, he’d entered and completed nine different stays at various rehab facilities. Things were looking great for him, and the theory these professionals have offered me is that he went out for one last blast — and the drugs killed my beloved son.
Deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl skyrocketed to over 71,000 in 2021. To put this in perspective, approximately 58,220 U.S. military members died during the entire Vietnam War. Back then, there were anti-war protesters in the streets by the thousands ― citizens demanded something be done.
But today, this epidemic is barely acknowledged. There’s no outrage in the streets. The families who’ve lost their children in this battle are left behind with few, if any, answers. The casualties involved are often thought of as people who didn’t have enough self-control instead of victims of a fierce enemy.
So — does it get any easier? No way. But as another dear friend who also lost her son tragically told me, “The grief takes on a different shape.” It shifts. She is correct. There are now fewer days when my heart feels like it’s pierced with a thousand knives. One figures out how to deal with the permanent emptiness inside. There is no healing, but there is coping. One learns to cope ― to adapt.
During my early journey of mourning, the world moved on without me. I wished for a black armband ― a sign of grief ― to wear to alert strangers of my extremely fragile emotional state. A week after Randy’s funeral, while I was at a bank closing his account, a teller cheerily asked me, “Do you have fun plans for today?” I ignored her question. I wanted to scream at her that the next fun thing on my to-do list was to send out more of Randy’s death certificates, and after that, I’d be going through his belongings. Instead, I stayed silent. Various acquaintances said they knew exactly how I felt because they’d lost a cat or a dog. I said nothing in return to these comments, too.
Yesterday, a friend called me. His close relative, an addict, has been in and out of rehab and is using — again. This time, their family is afraid he won’t make it. Sadly, I get a number of these phone calls.
He asked if I had any suggestions. If I did, my own son would still be alive. I did offer some things I’ve learned: alcoholism and drug addiction are different animals; “rock bottom” often means death; nobody knows the answer. I did everything the so-called and well-meaning professionals told me to do. I did everything they told me not to do. So did Randy. But the pull from these overpowering and highly lethal drugs is overwhelmingly strong.
These days, some people look at me as if I now know something profound because I’ve lost a child ― that because I’ve experienced something so utterly painful, the secrets to the universe have been revealed. Nope. Not even close.
What I do know is this: When tragedy hit, I was lucky to have family and friends to carry my load while I figured out how to breathe. Everyone finds their own way through hell. I studied books on grief, went into therapy, and finally, I decided to learn how to live with Randy’s death. It was and is and will always be exactly that: a conscious decision. Randy was intense, hysterically funny, up for anything, curious, extroverted and had many, many friends. He’d be mad if I had given up ― if I ever give up.
I have another son, Billy, and his wonderful wife, Kelsey, and their own precious son, my grandson. They live in another state, so after we’d huddled together for Randy’s funeral, our shared grieving was done long-distance. I tried to keep from them my constant feeling of falling backward off a cliff, but Billy was mourning the loss of his brother, and we consistently checked in. I wanted to rally during FaceTime calls or in-person visits, but it was a struggle. When grief takes hold, it is a wedge between you and everything else. Learning to wrestle that beast to the side takes time. And work. As a family, we’ve learned to be patient ― to wait it out ― when the pain rolls in. There’s nothing else to do.
When I see Randy’s childhood friends, they say how much they miss him, and now they’re the ones who offer the bear hugs. Many are married and have young children. If I’m being completely honest, sometimes I feel jealous ― jealous of their lives, their young families, their bright futures. But I work on feeling happiness for them and gratitude for their memories of my son.
The road to recovery for addicts is often long, and sadly, too many people never make it. Narcan can save lives, but we need it to be more available. The drugs to help people get off opioids can also become addictive and come with their own problems. For the most part, communities don’t offer support for people who are addicted to drugs like they do for cancer patients or people facing other potentially fatal diseases. Instead, parents and family members of people with addictions are often labeled “enablers” or “codependent.” We’re made to feel guilty when we’re desperately trying to keep our children alive.
People with addictions themselves are made to feel shame, which deepens their problems. Instead of receiving help, they are often thrown in jail. We need to have serious public conversations ― maybe even protests in the streets ― regarding the power of the drugs available to our kids. Drug addiction needs to be treated as a serious and deadly health crisis ― not as a character flaw.
Life can be very brutal, but it is also very good. All of us who love Randy have learned how to continue moving forward, however slowly. However sadly. I’ve made space for grief ― it is now a part of my existence. I’ve learned that it doesn’t cancel out joy and happiness, but it does accompany it. The hole in my soul will never be filled because I loved my child deeply, and I miss him with every molecule in my body.
Karen Wallace Bartelt was a weekly newspaper columnist for The Oregonian and has written for many other publications. At the beginning of her writing career, she studied under noted authors ― and fellow Oregonians ― Ursula Le Guin and poet William Stafford. She worked at Paramount Pictures in its heyday. She enjoys teaching creative writing to unhoused people who are transitioning into stable housing. A third-generation Portlander, she spends a lot of time in the rain, and skis, rides horses and enjoys her family. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.