A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

Complex Grief Associated with Death by Addiction

 

I know this is a heavy title, but I want to spend this article talking about the very real and unfortunately, very common type of grief. In my line of work, in hospitals working with families whose loved one is at the end of life, death by overdose or addiction happens every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,177 overdose deaths in Wisconsin in 2017; that’s over 3 deaths every day. These deaths are from synthetic opioids, heroin and prescription opioids like pain pills.[1] Grief associated with death by overdose is unique, given the complexity of the grief and the seemingly inconsistent emotions families hold all at once. There is added complexity to this grief when people feel the death was somehow preventable. I want to take some time and walk through the variety of emotions people may feel when they are grieving death by overdose.[2]

 

Guilt is the feeling of having committed an offense or failed in an obligation. Guilt can arise for folks grieving death by overdose when they feel they could have or should have done something to prevent the death. For example, family members might say “Should I have given him gas money when I knew he would spend it on drugs? Did I somehow cause his death?” Or “I showed her tough love by kicking her out; if I had let her say, I could have helped her when she overdosed.” If you are talking with someone struggling with this, reassure the one grieving that the death is not their fault.

 

Relief is the feeling of reassurance or relaxation following release form anxiety or distress. It is natural to feel a sense of relief when pain or suffering ends. Think about it for yourself – the sense of relief you feel when that headache goes away, or when exams or the big presentation for work is over. No one who has an addict in their family wants their loved one to die. They have always hoped for the addiction to end, praying it would be through recovery, not in death. But, in the face of death by overdose, the addict’s and the family’s suffering has ended. A mother won’t have to worry any longer when the phone rings late at night. A spouse won’t have to worry about shielding the children from the addict’s behaviors. This feeling of relief in no way diminishes the love for the addict or the sense of loss and grief.

 

Shame is the feeling of bringing disgrace or regret, and it is an emotion that is based on what others think of you. Shame around death by overdose comes with the thought that you believe others think it is your fault for having a family member who is an addict. The feeling of shame can also arise if there is a perception that you enabled the addict. Those grieving may think others will judge them for not doing enough to help the addict get clean and sober. Because of this shame, family members may be reluctant to share the circumstances of the death or feel less worthy of mourning. Addiction likely touches every family in some form; don’t let the one grieving feel shame. Reassure the surviving family that you love them, support them and that you can only imagine how hard this death and grief must be.

 

Fear is to be afraid of someone or something as likely to be dangerous, painful or threatening. Those grieving death by overdose will likely have a sense of fear and anxiety in the wake of the death. They may wonder “Will others start using, relapse or die of an overdose?” Surviving family members may find themselves trying to control every situation as to not allow anyone else to die or be hurt. You can imagine how fixated someone could get trying to protect others and not address their own grief.

 


 

Stigma and Isolation Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. There may be a reluctance for those grieving to openly discuss the cause of death due to stigma around drug abuse and addiction. Surviving family members may be hesitant to share out of fear of what others may think, or they may want people to remember the deceased as happy, loving, athletic, smart… not as an addict. Unfortunately, this often leads to isolation, as those grieving don’t fully disclose the cause of death, don’t open up about the variety of grief they are feeling, and often limit their grieving.

 

If you find yourself in a situation where someone opens up about their grief surrounding death by overdose, please recognize it as a sacred moment. Remember the Not Top 10 and the Top 10… they apply for this type of grief too. If the person grieving begins to share the variety of emotions they are feeling, reassure them that one emotion does not detract from the others. You can be sad about the death and, at the same time, feel relief that the pain and stress associated with addiction has ended. You can feel relief and, at the same time, wonder if there were things you could have done to prevent the death. Emotions around death by overdose aren’t mutually exclusive.

 

--------------------------------------------------------

On a totally different note… I would like to ask for prayers as I prepare for a mission trip in June. I will be joining Ardmore Baptist Church and my husband, Rev. Dane Martin on a week-long mission trip serving a community of Haitian refugees in the Bahamas. Haiti holds a special place in my heart, as that is where I first heard (or first listened to) God’s calling on my life. I am excited to minister to the Haitian people in this new context. Thank you for your prayers.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Overview of the Drug Overdose Epidemic, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data

[2] What’s Your Grief; The Grief of an Overdose Death: Part 1, https://whatsyourgrief.com/the-grief-of-an-overdose-death

Living the Resurrection

“It’s too early…” was the refrain that I heard preached last week in a sermon by pastor of Trinity UCC, Chicago, the Rev. Otis Moss III. He was speaking about the myriad challenges of life both in and outside of the church, reminding us in this Easter season that our faith tells us that it’s always too early to throw in the towel, to become overwhelmed, to stop trusting in what God is still about to do in our midst. My heart hummed with a resonance of what I’ve come to trust as “church” when he described “the sisters rising early in the morning to bring spices to the place of death, to change the aroma and the atmosphere of loss and grief.” Of course, the message of Easter is that their intent to go and worship in that very place of grief allowed them to encounter the proclamation of new life that was beyond their imagining. To be a people of the resurrection is to live out that proclamation daily.

Our church family has been pondering what it means to grieve the imminent retirement of our church secretary of 27 years. There is nothing but celebration for Diane as she embarks on this new adventure and chapter in her life. And as church, we hold nothing but gratitude for the amazing ways that Diane touched and supported our lives individually and as a church. But change always brings a level of anxiety and grief. Into the goodbyes we also proclaim that resurrection affirmation that we are always the servants who carry those fragrant spices into the next chapter – for Diane, and for us.

Next week we will be welcoming our new office manager and celebrating what God is continuing to do in our midst. The search process felt like an amazing affirmation of the hope that we’re called to live out. We received nearly 90 applications, almost all of them were wonderful, and many exceptional. The personnel committee was impressed by the 14 initial interviews, and four follow-ups that left us feeling like we were experiencing the abundant blessings of God. The discernment process was difficult because of the quality of the candidates. We are pleased to introduce Robin Mock as our new office manager. Robin has spent the past nineteen years employed at institutions of higher learning, most recently as the administrative assistant for the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Marian University in Fond du Lac. For eighteen years she served Lakeland University in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, as the assistant to the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and as advancement administrative coordinator and marketing coordinator. She comes with a wealth of experience combined with great enthusiasm to come and be a part of the ministry team at Peace Church. Her first day of work will be May 28th. She’ll have a few initial days to overlap with Diane and to begin to find her way around. By June 3rd she’ll be the person that we’ll most likely hear on the phone or encounter in the office. But you shouldn’t be surprised to still encounter Diane here and there. Diane will continue to help orient Robin as needed, as a “special consultant” who has deeply loved her ministry for 27 years.

Like those women early in the morning, we know that we will all be journeying through emotions of grief and celebration in the midst of change. For we know that we are a resurrection people with whom God walks and inspires with new blessings.

We thank Diane from the depths of our souls! She will always be a part of our church family.

We welcome Robin! It is wonderful to invite her into a family that is eager to cherish her gifts.

May God bless each of us on the journey!!

And then there was Holy Week

Within my life of ministry, Lent always seems to pick up speed as it moves along. Suddenly we are in the rich tradition of Holy Week and wrestling with the dynamics of life and death, justice and grace. We began our Lenten journey with those words that remind us of our mortality: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” We are constantly invited to make our peace with death and dying and then to live life to its fullest as the blessing intended by God.

Central to the peace that we are invited to hold within our hearts is the promise of God’s love that never ends. Our Easter proclamation embodies the power of love. I think that proclamation took on a very different character when I focused less on the language of a father sacrificing his son and started hearing the language of self-sacrifice – servant language. The ancient hymn that we encounter in the letter to the Philippians speaks so beautifully to a very different theology than that of a Father sacrificing his son (an act that has always sounded like it erred too close to abuse). That hymn proclaims: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.(Philippians 2:5–8, CEB) The idea of God choosing to journey with us through suffering and death feels very different than offering your child for sacrifice. That solidarity becomes the antidote to a world that continues to be addicted to the myth of redemptive violence. God proclaims that the violence of the world cannot win – rather, servanthood, self-sacrificial love, this is the power that saves us.

At the center of this idea is a very early doctrine of the church, the incarnation. Rev. Holly Whitcomb in her new book “The Practice of Finding” writes about the incarnation in a provocative passage titled “say Yes to being vulnerable as God is vulnerable”. She references writer Melissa Tidwell who elaborates: “It is staggering to consider God's willingness to accept – or even God's desire to experience – a human form, living in a body like ours. It opens us up to marvel at the idea of a perfect, eternal God becoming perishable, harmable, capable of grief and pain, and finally, death.”  Holly continues: “Most of us struggle with vulnerability. In our work or our personal lives we may be seduced by images of our virtue and personal power, thinking these will win us accolades or personal agency. But of course, we all know on a deep level that it is in fact not our perfection but our humanness and our vulnerability that are the bridges to other people. […] God became human in the incarnation, and we become human when we are open and vulnerable and less than perfect.”

The journey of faith is one that continually leads us to understand the power of a servant’s heart. The Roman Empire thought that death on a cross would serve its purposes. It thought that the death of Jesus and any other rabble-rouser or revolutionary would save the empire in somewhat the same way that Temple culture thought that animal sacrifice would save the people of faith. The Psalmist and the Prophets often voice that God doesn’t merely want the sacrifice; he wants changed hearts. God becoming human in Jesus shifts our understanding of power yet again. The vulnerable becomes the victor, love triumphs over violence, sacrifice to God is abolished through sacrifice by God. Love wins.

           And it is the power of that witness that has us proclaim: Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!!!

Oops, I seem to have given up posting for Lent

Last week, as we began Lent, I seemed to have struck a chord with a number of people when I described the act of giving something up for Lent as fundamentally being about reorienting our lives to God. I recall my Judaism professor helping me to understand dietary laws, and indeed many of the religious laws of any tradition that define how one does ordinary tasks, as being about focusing our lives on living in relationship to God. When our daily lives are infused with constant reminders of our living in relation with God then it’s harder for us to lose our focus on living out our covenant. So, people not eating meat on Fridays may push them to remember that this is a church teaching, they may or may not understand the meaning behind it, but every time they choose not to eat meat on a Friday they think about their faith… or do they? I found myself pondering something as simple as people giving up chocolate for Lent, something I hear about often. And I wondered whether going without something that I enjoyed helped me to somehow reconnect with God better. It certainly had the possibility of connecting me to the story of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days being hungry, but did it deepen my faith? My sense over the years from watching the practice of giving something up for Lent is that it doesn’t seem to add much to people’s spiritual journey. And so the recommendation that I offered this year is one that I’ve read often from others – to focus on giving more love and grace instead of giving something up – giving outward instead of giving up. Maybe even something as simple as giving thanks and joy instead of the lack thereof.

I was recently introduced to some thoughts by Rev. Holly Whitcomb in her new book the Practice of Finding; she was speaking about learning to savor and find wonder. At one point she quoted an oft repeated Jewish saying that “on the Day of Judgement God will only ask one question: Did you enjoy my world?” From Judaism   I learned the sense of original blessing, that all of creation, and surely life itself is overflowing with the blessing of God, and we are to appreciate it. But that appreciation isn’t just supposed to be the passing glance that says, “hey, nice flower…” it’s supposed to be the practice of letting the blessings around us transform our hearts. Holly uses the word savoring as a way of inviting us to slow down and appreciate. I think that this would be a more faithful Lenten journey in the wilderness. To be more intentional in our day to day life, to take that extra moment to appreciate the blessings.

There was a well-worn story that crossed my desk recently:

There once was a happy monkey wandering the jungle, eating delicious fruit when hungry, and resting when tired. One day he came upon a house, where he saw a bowl of the most beautiful apples. He took one in each hand and ran back into the forest. He sniffed the apples and smelled nothing. He tried to eat them, but hurt his teeth. They were made of wood, but they were beautiful, and when the other monkeys saw them, he held onto them even tighter.

He admired his new possessions proudly as he wandered the jungle. They glistened red in the sun, and seemed perfect to him. He became so attached to them, that he didn't even notice his hunger at first.

A fruit tree reminded him, but he felt the apples in his hands. He couldn't bear to set them down to reach for the fruit. In fact, he couldn't relax, either, if he was to defend his apples. A proud, but

less happy monkey continued to walk along the forest trails.

The apples became heavier, and the poor little monkey thought about leaving them behind. He was tired, hungry, and he couldn't climb trees or collect fruit with his hands full. What if he just let go?

Letting go of such valuable things seemed crazy, but what else could he do? He was so tired. Seeing the next fruit tree, and smelling its fruit was enough. He dropped the wooden apples and reached up for his meal. He was happy again.

Don’t we often hold onto all the wrong things in our lives, things that can’t offer us life? In Colossians it was spoken of as “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” Perhaps we could also say that we should set our minds on those things that feed our souls, that give us deep joy, that align our lives with God's blessings.

As we continue our journey with God, perhaps we should spend more time giving thanks, giving kindness, giving grace, giving joy… and let those things fill us up with the wonder of God's blessings.