Last month, I attended two wakes in a single week. Both men whose lives I celebrated were under 35 and addiction cut their experience of “coming back” off at the knees; victims of the opioid epidemic gripping our nation. For me, the hardest part about surviving addiction and living in recovery is losing people I love to the very same disease that nearly claimed my life. Each death leaves a hole in my spirit. For the sake of my recovery, I must carry on through acts of service. I discovered that a final act of service, performed too often at funeral homes or outdoor memorial services, helps heal the wound left by the loss of a young, promising life.
I walked into that second wake and felt a familiar awkwardness I hope I never overcome or get used to. Despite the chilly weather and COVID restrictions, the line to see the family wrapped around the funeral home. I made my way through the line, passed off light-handed waves to others, and approached the book where I signed my name and reached for a prayer card from the stack. My gaze fixed on the stacks of glossy cards printed with the same bright, smiling face of my friend underscored with a prayer. I joined the crowd and put the prayer card in my pocket, knowing where it would ultimately end up.
In a drawer beside my bed lays a cigar box full of cards like these. A morbid collection, the value counted in memories, potential, and love. Too many promising young faces rest in that box.
When we lose people we love to addiction, especially young people, we tend to ask a lot of questions. Why? Could I have done more? What if ……? I’ve learned to stop asking those questions. The truth is there is nothing more we could have done. The truth is we did the best we could with what we had. The truth is we will never know why. And as painful as it is, that has to be enough.
As people in recovery we build beautiful, heartfelt relationships; perform countless acts of service for one another, small and large. In recovery, we learn vulnerability and show others our true selves. That’s what makes these connections so strong. We grow an intangible bond, the full nature of which many are unable to truly see. Many embarrassing laughs over coffee, many hugs shared after meetings, many deep, hour-long phone conversations fuel these relationships. Many last a lifetime. And so, when a fellow traveler dies that I’ve developed that bond with, it hurts. It hurts a lot.
For me, I tend to mourn alone. I shut the door and let me be. I don’t take it to social media or do it publicly. I feel closer to God and the loved ones I’ve lost. I usually hit my knees and pray. I ask God to show Himself in the lives of the family and everyone around them. I ask Him to bring Light and Love into their lives. I ask Him to relieve me of my pain so I can better love and serve those around me. I know that faith without works is dead, and God’s work requires action. The best celebration of the lives we’ve lost is to get out and serve. I get off my knees, wipe my face, and head back to work. In my new role of Young Adult and Family Services Manger I work hard to prevent this from happening again. I strive to keep young people connected to the pulse of recovery and the people who love them.
With the prayer card in my pocket, I sit among other mourners at the wake. People take turns sharing stories about the man we lost. Today it’s not about me, it’s about the ones I love. It’s about bringing light where there is darkness. There’s no more coaching left to do, there’s only love to give and connection to share. When we get into recovery our families don’t always know what happens. They don’t always understand the fellowship, they just see us getting better. When I approach the family, I like to tell them stories – especially funny ones. I am privileged to share memories of their children, first-person testimony of the courageous battle their loved ones fought. I share with them one of greatest gifts of recovery, heartfelt moments and the smiles of serenity their children shared with me as we worked together to get better. I share the love that I, often as a stranger to them, had for the people they loved so much. We connect through that shared love and pain, a pain often beyond understanding. It’s an indescribable form of pain. But it is a beautiful form of pain in that it drives me to continue doing what I do…one last act of service.