Grief is Grief is Grief is dedicated to my cousin Jessica, on her 30th birthday.
I usually talk in metrics. About how my award winning work on the heroin epidemic and its effect on families has a worldwide readership.
I usually bring up statistics. Like how in 2015, 52,000 people in the United States overdosed on drugs and died. Within that number, 33,000 died at the hands of opiates. Never in history had drugs killed so many of us in a single year. According to New York Magazine, the drug-induced death toll was so staggering, it helped reduce life expectancy in the United States for the first time since 1993.
I do this to stress the undeniable point that any family could be affected by this epidemic.
I try to paint a picture of what that means. For example, According to ABC News, the rise of otherwise healthy people dying as a result of the nation’s opioid epidemic has caused the number of organ donations from overdose victims to rise.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), in 1994, only 29 donors in the U.S. had died of drug overdoses. Last year, that number climbed to 848.
I try to drill down and explain just how bad the epidemic is affecting us right here, in New Jersey. I usually tell audiences that our state’s overdose rate is three times the national average. I inform them that Ocean County has mandated Narcan, the overdose reversal drug, be present in all high schools.
Not today, though. Today I am going to speak from the heart; because everyone has lost, or will lose, someone they love – maybe not due to drugs, but in some other way. And when you lose someone you love, why does it matter how they died? Drugs, freak accident, illness, old age.
Death is death is death.
Grief is grief is grief.
What does matter is a parent just lost their child, a sister just lost a sibling, someone just lost a partner, cousin, best friend, co-worker, and neighbor. They are gone, and you are left behind to clean up messes and pick out coffins. You are left behind to stand on some twisted receiving line as “I’m sorry for your loss” is repeated in your face every two seconds. You are left behind for the rest of your life, forever heartbroken because they mattered. They were a person, and they mattered.
They mattered – the circumstances, secondary.
I speak to parents who lost children to drugs. I only know they lost their child that way because they tell me because they want to share their story to possibly save another family from their fate. All I see with my own eyes, though, is a grieving mother and father.
Because, grief is grief is grief.
Parts of society seem to be still treating those grieving the loss of someone due to drugs as second-class grievers, though. Almost dismissing the losses of people like Maureen, Peter, and Loren, as preventable.
“No one brings you casseroles when you have a child sick with addiction,” said Maureen, a mother whose daughter’s fate is unknown on a day-to-day basis. “They bring you shame, judgment and their two cents of what they would have done to avoid my fate.”
“She left this world thinking that her father didn’t believe the awful things that happened to her, and this hurts me deeply,” said Peter, a father who lost his daughter Nikki in 2012. “I want to thank God for lending Nikki to us for 21 wonderful years. It pains me to know that she will never experience many of the joys in life like feeling the love of a husband, raising children, and being the Maid of Honor at her twin sister’s wedding.”
“A million times in my head, I’ve tried to piece together how this happened, how was I not able to beat this and save my princess. I was Molly’s go-to person to save her, bail her out of any problems,” expressed Loren, a heartbroken father who continues to share his daughter’s poetry. “I cannot speak for any other parents who share this loss, but I will never shake the guilt that I could have and should have done more.”
Depending on how progressive your state is when it comes to addiction and recovery, those grieving the loss of someone to drugs may experience different treatment from their communities.
I am here to tell you right now, that grief is grief is grief. Do not be ashamed. Do not hide away.
Today is my cousin Jessica’s 30th birthday. My cousin and I were cousins by design, but friends by choice. We were born ten months apart, but now I am 10 years older than she is. I am 30. And, today, Jess would have turned 30 as well. This has been weighing heavy on my psyche. Not sure why. Maybe because she is turning 30 but never had the chance to even enter her 20’s. She never left her teens.
March 3 will never be just a date on my calendar. She will never be just the cousin I “had” for 19 years. People I know, know her because I knew her. People I will meet one day will get to know her because I knew her.
I still call her “Jess” because “Jessica” is too formal and engraved on her tombstone and I don’t think I ever called her that once while she was here.
That’s the thing I want anyone grieving out there to realize. Though, I speak in past tense. She’s still here because I’m still here. You’re loved one is still with you, even though they are no longer physically a part of your life.
My life isn’t what it would’ve been if she had stayed. Loss altered my DNA. I’ve become what wasn’t intended at the start, but that doesn’t make me broken, just reconfigured. Though heartbroken, you are not broken, I swear.
My life was made better because we existed together for that brief time, but I became more compassionate and strong due to her abrupt exit. I will never know who I would’ve been if she had stayed, but I know who I became without her: someone she’d be proud of. Someone who doesn’t judge, but someone who understands that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. Because of her, I became someone who doesn’t idly stand by but speaks the hell up about things that matter.
It may take a village to do most things, but it only takes one person to remember in order to be remembered. And I know Jess is remembered by many, and I hope your loved one is, too. Jess is remembered by those she knew personally, by those who share her bloodline who she never met, like her nieces, and by strangers who got to know her through photos and my words and our shared last name.
She once existed here with us, so she will continue to exist here with us.
Anyone we have ever loved and lost still exists as long as we continue to exist.
Look for signs. They are there, I promise you. Jess still finds me. In license plates spelling her initials. On 60 degree days in the dead of winter. In the rattling of blinds and the rustling of papers in a breezeless room. In pictures that float from dusty shelves like autumn leaves when I’m reaching for something else. She still finds me, because I still look for her. Jess will always find me because I will always keep looking.
I know she would’ve loved turning thirty, but she’s Forever 19. Forever a part of me.
The truth is, I never had a reason to believe in Heaven – or any other plane of existence – until all my favorite people started leaving.
I just want anyone who is grieving right now to know, the most important thing you can do is keep your loved one’s memory alive, because I have learned, if you do, they never feel too far away.
Keep saying their names aloud. Keep telling people about them. Keep sharing photos. Because if they mattered to you, they will always matter to you, so they should always matter to the world, too.