Relapsing Into Grief, But Holding Tight to Memories That Will Light My Path Forward

Photo of Rikki Kolb - August 6, 1983 - January 22, 2016

By Sherrie A. Cassel

There were certainly dark days and nights when Rikki was battling his demons. There were nights I didn’t know where he was. Times I couldn’t reach him. No phone calls. No contact. I worried about him being with his son and being high. Many phone calls to child welfare yielded no satisfactory resolution. I worried myself into a weakened immune system from the stress of loving my addict son.

I would have died to save him, as I know anyone who has lost a child to addiction must feel this way. I try to let the past fade into the background, but it comes up every so often. I was driving back home from the gym today, and I saw a guy stoned out of his mind walking down the street. My son never had that exact experience. He had a home. He had his own money. He had a family who adored him. He had a shower and loved being clean, even at his worst. But I wondered what went through this guy’s mind when he had the occasion to be sober. I wonder what my son thought when he had such an occasion.

I remember the day he decided to go into rehab the first time. He had tried quitting alcohol cold turkey, and had a psychotic break. I thought that would be the worst day of my life, but as time would prove, it was not.

I was thinking today of how proud my Rikki was when he made the decision to get into rehab, twice. First time was alcohol; second time was heroin. He wanted to be well. He wanted to be whole. He loved his family and hated disappointing us. We were powerless to help him. I wondered what he thought about when he was alone fighting the disease, wrestling with his demons. Did he cry for me like he did when he was a baby and I was the only one who could soothe him?

‘Questions Whose Answers Only Hurt Me’

I was driving, and I had to keep it together, and I did; however, I started to ask myself, “What good does it do me to ask questions whose answers only hurt me, or make me see the darkness instead of the light inside of my precious son?” Why do I torture myself for things over which I will never have true knowledge, or things over which I had no power?

I know all the Cs. I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it. I know this at the most basic level, and yet there is guilt, and we’ve all shouldered some of it. I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up over their addiction or their deaths. But, I know I could have done things more compassionately. I know I could have tried to understand the disease better. I know I could have set a better example of self-care. I know I could have listened better. There are a multitude of things I could have said or done better, but it still wouldn’t have saved his life. And I know I am not responsible for his death.

I ask questions sometimes whose answers are unknowable. I don’t know what Rikki thought when he was alone and struggling. I will never know, and to badger myself with the compulsion to know is just self-destructive on my part. I am learning to make my peace with his death and with the mistakes I made.

I still see things, like this gentleman walking down the street, that bring mine and Rik’s last few years together flooding back. It was such a dark and chaotic time. I know that in order for me to truly heal, I must let go of the memories that weigh me down, and hold on to the ones that glow an iridescent light, like the halo I know my angel son has above his head now, and to be honest, the one he always had. I am the one who loved him best, and I want to remember the best things about him.

I will pray for those who still struggle, but I’m still frightened to be around them. The close contact still hurts me. I am also still angry with those with whom he used, one in particular. He sold dope to him knowing how sick my son was. Anger doesn’t help; it keeps me trapped in the past and unable to move forward toward healing.

My Son Did Not Choose Addiction

It’s strange what will bring us to our knees — a terminally ill child, for example — and addiction is a terminal disease, for which there is no cure, as those of us who have lost children to the disease know. I prayed. I begged. I cried out to any God who would listen. I pleaded with my son to get help, to stay sober. If choice were the deciding factor, he would not have chosen to die in his disease. But at some point, he had no choice; the drug had his body so reliant on it that he couldn’t pull away.

I have memories of the dark years, and sometimes they come back to haunt and hurt me. I must be stronger than they are. I must push them away and remember the things that brought me joy about my son, the things that made me laugh, all his wonderful personality traits, and quirks. To continue to stay in that dark place will only make me sick, physically and emotionally.

My son was full of life. I was at the gym the other day and I had my iPod, and three songs came on that I know were from Rikki. One song was so obscure, and it brought back a memory of us dancing in the kitchen when he lived with us. We laughed and danced and clapped our hands in time to the song. Oh, what a wonderful memory it is.

I choose to think about that tonight.

Sherrie Cassel has a B.S. in psychology and will be attending seminary in the spring of 2018. She has a book available at Amazon, Love Songs to a Junkie Son and is also published at Grief Digest. She manages After the Storm, a Facebook site specifically for parents who’ve lost a child to addiction. She lives in San Diego with her husband, Ben.

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