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What I learned about the importance of shared experiences in traumatic grief support

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of North American mothers who grieve for a child lost to addiction, overdose, or drug poisoning. Our collective grief is staggering. Our strength, inspiring. Yet every one of us carries our grief differently, and there’s a reason for that.

My son’s death knocked me off a path I was purposefully walking upon. It swept me into a dizzying tornado that eventually hurled me to the ground—every piece of me broken—where I found myself lost in a foreign land I had never even imagined. I didn’t know anybody here. I didn’t speak the language. I couldn’t find a good bakery. And I knew there was no way home. Ever. I had to somehow rebuild my life here, in this land of grief.

More than four years after Tristan’s death, I’m still working on it. But thanks to other moms who arrived before me, I have not been alone. I’ve been surrounded by teachers and students; advocates and healers; all of them warrior women. I have found understanding. And, because of that, I have a beautiful new home, built upon grief and joy, love and heartache.

Now, as student becomes teacher, I want to share something I learned along the way. Something that had never occurred to me about support networks until I found myself needing one. And it’s super simple, but really important: Shared experiences matter.

If you’ve had a child die from addiction, drug overdose, or our toxic drug supply, you know that your grief is different from others. Not worse, certainly not better—just different. If you’ve spoken to other parents who’ve lost kids to drug harms, you know that every person’s grief is different. Grief is universal, but how we feel it, express it, and cope with it is uniquely our own. Our culture, personality, support network, and life experiences have a lot to do with this, but what I wasn’t aware of before I was thrust into the world of grieving, was what a significant role trauma plays.

Being in community with other women who not only grieved, but who shared the same trauma-related grief as I did, has been critical for my healing. Early on, I didn’t want to be with mothers who “only” suffered the death of a child. I wanted to be among mothers who suffered during the life of their child, who they could not save from addiction. Women who—after their worst fears came true—could still find a reason to keep breathing, to keep living, to bring joy into their lives. Those were my people.

Now, I understand why.

Losing your child to drug harms is a traumatic experience. It’s called a “single incident trauma”. Living with a loved one in active addiction is also a traumatic experience, creating “complex or repetitive trauma”.

It’s important to remember that trauma is not about the event or circumstance: it’s about how we perceive and react to it. Trauma occurs when we’re overwhelmed in such a way that our physiology and neurology changes to help us survive extremely dangerous situations, and then gets stuck there, even when the danger has passed. When we have lived through our child’s sudden death, after years of living through their addiction, we’re not just dealing with grief; we’re also dealing with trauma.

Those of us who have traumatic grief, experience all the same grief feelings as anyone who loses a loved one: intense sadness, anger, denial, frustration, loneliness, heartbreak. But it’s more complex than our neighbor’s grief who lost their best friend after a three-year battle with cancer. It’s not just emotional for us. It’s physical. It’s cognitive. It’s spiritual and behavioral. Traumatic grief impacts every part of our lives.

It shows up in different ways, in different people, and there’s a huge shopping list of symptoms for the Universe to choose from and send our way. In the months following my son’s death, I counted myself lucky, experiencing fewer symptoms than many other bereaved moms I know. Even so, my traumatic grief included chronic fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, compulsive/obsessive behaviors, dissociation, difficulty concentrating, fearfulness, emotional numbness, memory problems, loss of connection to family and community, feelings of shame and guilt, self-blame, difficulty enjoying time with family and friends, avoiding certain settings, and isolation. This is just a few of them. And, over four years later, I’m still struggling with some of these symptoms. Even though I’m pretty well balanced and have worked hard at my healing. Neither trauma nor grief are things we can simply wish away; they need to be understood, embraced, and worked with. From there, healing happens.

For me to feel supported, I need to be with people who understand the nature of my traumatic grief. For me, that means not just others who’ve experienced a sudden drug-related death, but who have also lived with the trauma of their child’s addiction prior to their death. This is central to my grief experience. I still grieve that Tristan spent so much of his life struggling with addiction and menta

l health challenges. I still live with the guilt of not having saved him. I’m still working through trauma related to that.

Just as grief experiences are different for every person, so are trauma experiences, even when we’re looking only at the trauma of addiction and loss. While my experiences fall within the single incident trauma and complex or repetitive trauma categories, there are others. Children raised in a home where addiction prevails can experience developmental trauma. When dysfunctional coping and adaptation patterns are passed down from generation to generation, you may have intergenerational trauma. And, here in Canada, if you’re First Nation, Métis, or Inuit, then you may be experiencing historical trauma resulting from hundreds of years of genocide, residential schools, and systemic racism. Each of these forms of trauma carry their own unique challenges. It’s helpful to have a grief support network who understands your particular flavor of traumatic grief.

Once you know where your trauma and grief intersect, it’s easier to find your support network. They’re the people who have lived your grief (albeit differently) and lived your trauma (in their own unique way). They’re walking their own healing path and shine their light for you to follow. They are teachers and students, advocates and healers. With them, you will not be alone. They will help you to build a new home, built upon grief and joy, love and heartache, in this unfamiliar land of grief. If you’re lucky, they may even show you where there’s a good bakery.

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