Five years ago today, we got the news. I was at work and just settling into my cubicle with my first cup of coffee when I received a call from my sister Jenny. Knowing that Jenny didn’t call very often, especially when she knew I was working, I had a bad feeling in my gut that would be justified in the first seconds of answering the call. “Matt’s dead.”
Five years later, we are all still in pain. It isn’t constant. It’s not debilitating all the time like it was for the first few years after his passing, but it’ll always be there. Those fortunate enough to not have been burdened with this kind of grief in their life may not understand or appreciate the fact that mourning lasts forever. It’s not something that conveniently goes away after an expected time frame that you can track on a calendar. After a certain period of time passes, the support we receive fades but the feeling remains with us forever. Not all the time. But when it comes, we tend to deal with it ourselves as to not bother anyone else with our sadness.
The more tragic the loss, the harder it hits. Matt’s departure was as tragic as they come.
Matt was not ashamed to tell people that he was an addict. He knew that addiction was a life-long struggle and in his last days he would be the first to articulate that. We tried to honor Matt in the obituary we wrote for him by stating in no uncertain terms that he was an addict. He wanted to shed light on it himself whenever he could, and would willingly discuss his condition with anyone who would hear him out. He saw first hand friends and other patients in rehab die from relapse, so he knew well the danger of the demons that he fought.
He knew that he could be next, and on the night following my father’s 68th birthday, it happened just as he thought it one day might. Just like that, “Matt’s dead.”
I used to harbor a lot of resentment for the people and organizations responsible for the opioid crisis in our country. Early on, I had to resist the temptation to “find the guy who sold him the drugs.” Looking back, I know that no one is to blame, even though I know that my mother and father still hold themselves accountable for his death. She doesn’t talk about it openly, but I know my mother blames herself for Matt dying.
“If I had only just done this, or if I had only just said something differently to him when he was alive, maybe he would still be with us today.” Much like an addict’s physical need to use drugs, a grieving parent cannot avoid blaming themself for something so tragic. It’s because of a powerful emotional addiction we all have called love. As Matt would say, once you’re an addict, you’re an addict for life. Whether you have access to the drug or not, you will always have that need.
My mother and father need to be Matthew’s parents, but now he’s gone. We need Matthew as a brother to go through life with us, but he won’t make that journey. Perhaps that’s the reason why I started writing the book series in which my Matthew equivalent will be included. It’s nothing more than substitution. Like an alcoholic who still drinks non-alcoholic beer or a psychopath who actually drinks decaf.
Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, just know that it’s okay to still mourn Matt. The same goes for others – my sister Sara who lost her daughter Alexa or my aunt Monica who lost her son James. The emotional connection we have with those we hold so dearly is something we cannot just turn off. Especially after they’re gone. The trickiest part about mourning, however, is allowing ourselves to cry without accepting the lies that we want to tell ourselves.
When the feeling hits you again – so that you can safely mourn without blaming yourself – here are some words to consider, when the darkness tries to take hold:
You were chosen to be Matt’s parents.
God chose you to be his parents.
You were the right people for the job and you did your job well.
You did not fail Matthew.
You never gave up on him.
It’s not your fault that he’s gone.
You will see him again.
You will get to hold him in your arms again in Heaven.
I’ll leave you with one more thought, a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien at the end of The Return of the King, when the companions had to say goodbye for the last time.
“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”