Jenna’s Journey and Her Lasting Impact on a Retired Addiction Professional
“Every single life is valuable in ways that you can’t imagine. Every single life is a gift.”- The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan
On August 8th of this year, What Grief Taught Me About Chemical Dependency Counseling was published on Medium, in Betterism . This article described how the challenges that I faced after my daughter Jeannine’s death helped me find a better way to do therapy with individuals requesting services for chemical dependency issues.
This current article will describe an intervention that I did while employed in the addictions field, shortly after my daughter’s death in 2003. I believe that this event heightened my awareness to the unique challenges faced by grieving alcohol and other drug users, after the death of a loved one.
A Serendipitous Encounter
In October 2003, approximately 7 months after my daughter Jeannine died, I was working my scheduled weekend shift at the inpatient drug treatment facility where I had been employed for the past seventeen plus years. One of our staff ,referred a resident of our facility, for grief counseling. Her therapist and other facility staff, had expressed concerns that she was absent for scheduled educational and therapy groups, and that she did not appear to be generally engaged in treatment.
Jenna( not her real name) was a 47-year-old divorced female with a long history of cocaine dependence, depression and anxiety. She also had previous treatment for chemical dependency, with her longest period of sobriety being 8 months. Her son Robert,(also not his real name), age 17 had died in a car accident about four years prior to her current treatment episode.
During our first interview, Jenna told me that she self-medicated with cocaine on a daily basis from the time that her son died until she decided to seek treatment. She indicated that she wanted to numb the excruciating emotional pain and guilt that she experienced after her son’s death. Jenna also indicated that she was currently having nightmares about her son’s death and having difficulty sleeping. She also complained of being “out of it” and not having the energy or the ability to concentrate.
As a parent who had experienced the death of a child, I silently identified with her physical, emotional and cognitive reactions resulting from the death of Robert, because her experienced mirrored mine after Jeannine’s death. My initial response was to normalize her behaviors in the context of grief after the death of a child, while simultaneously asking her questions about Robert.
I also verbalized that without access to drugs to self-medicate, that she in all likelihood, was experiencing Robert’s death as if it had actually occurred in October of 2003 and not four years earlier.
Jenna seemed to be relieved that she wasn’t going crazy, and told me that she felt like I fully understood her experience.
Prior to Jeannine’s death, I might have tried to offer solutions to Jenna’s grief. As I discovered from my own experience, there are no solutions to the finality inherent to physical death.
Jenna’s progress was discussed at a treatment team meeting shortly thereafter. The ultimate goal of these meetings is to incorporate input from everyone present to develop the best possible treatment for chemically dependent individuals .Behavioral issues that may be having a negative impact on their treatment experience, are also discussed. Staff brought up their concerns about Jenna not consistently attending scheduled activities and groups, her mood and general motivation for treatment.
I explained that Jenna’s observed behaviors were predictable responses to the life-changing loss of her son four years earlier, and were not a reflection of her lack of motivation to achieve a sober lifestyle. I suggested that we work in unison to help her develop the necessary coping skills to grieve her loss and help her adjust to her new reality. I also suggested that, under the circumstances, we not mandate her to attend groups if doing so would cause undue stress, but instead help her develop alternative plans to meet her needs. Over time, Jenna demonstrated significant progress and successfully completed treatment.
Approximately 6 months after she completed treatment, Jenna wrote to tell us that she was clean and sober and to thank us for our help. I do not know what became of her since her initial note to us, but she validated that the interventions that we did ,met her individualized needs at the time.
I never heard from Jenna again after that, so I don’t know if she has been able to maintain long-term sobriety. It is my hope that she has been able to stay drug free.
Serendipity has been a very prominent part of my path in the aftermath of my daughter’s death and I believe that Jenna and I were meant to cross paths if only for a brief moment in time. She not only awakened me to the need to be sensitized to the unique challenges presented to alcohol and other drug users after loss but provided a mirror for my own experience after Jeannine’s death. Jenna helped me as much as I hoped that I helped her.
Thoughts for Helping Professionals
The following points and interventions should be considered by helping professionals when addressing grief and loss issues with chemically dependent individuals:
1. Create a safe, non-judgmental environment for grief and loss to be expressed.
2. For chemically dependent individuals, their adjustment to loss is complicated by their general lack of sober coping and socialization skills. They typically deal with their emotional pain by self-medicating with alcohol and/or illegal drugs. Individuals who eventually make choices to become drug-free will experience a delayed intense reaction to loss because they no longer have their drug of choice with which to self-medicate
3. Focus on being a companion to their stories about their deceased loved ones. Keep in mind that alcohol and other drug users may have to repeatedly tell their stories in order to understand and accept that their lives have permanently changed.
4 Encourage them to discover their own individualized creative ways to grieve. Some may prefer to journal, others may prefer music, art or poetry.
5. Chemically dependent people are resilient and have strengths that can help them in their grief journey. Focusing on strengths rather than limitations will help these individuals achieve self-efficacy after loss.
6. Help them discover the required social skills to help them utilize self-help groups. These skills may range from engaging in small talk with their peers to asking for help from others individually or in a group setting. Their ability to master these skills will ensure that they will receive maximum benefit from self-help groups .
7.Obtain ongoing training in grief and trauma issues. If you have not developed that expertise, refer them to a professional who has those specific skills.