I realize that I made, what was perhaps the most important decision of my life, in the midst of shock. I had no business making decisions of any kind three months following the death of my oldest child. Some decisions were forced upon me at the time. Others I simply said “yes” to, having no idea what the ramifications would be — neither good nor bad. Now, as I reflect upon the last 18 months, I see that Emily’s death caused a deep crack in the armor that I had built up around my heart.
Before this horrific event, I had always considered myself a compassionate person. However, that may have been a deep-seated need to see myself in that way, rather than true selflessness. The intense emotional and physical pain in my chest following Emily’s death, somehow allowed the light to truly penetrate the areas of my heart that I would rather have kept hidden in darkness. At first I was resentful. This was not supposed to be my story! I had tried to script my life in the way, as a journalist, I had scripted news stories. But my scripts were ripped to shreds when Emily overdosed. It was not only that she was gone, but how she died. Pain, blame and shame washed over me like hot lava erupting from a volcano. I had no idea what to do with any of the mess. I felt as if I could not bear the weight of not only the loss, but the circumstances surrounding it.
Yet, I blindly stumbled ahead; telling her story — hoping for the best — and figuring the worst had already happened anyway, so what did it matter if I were humiliated and scorned? I hoped that by telling Emily’s story, I could make sense out of it and maybe, just maybe, prevent it from happening to someone else. My daughter’s death seemed so meaningless, that perhaps I could create meaning from it through helping others. The truth is, blame and shame have no place in dealing with addiction. Families will never face anything more challenging. In Emily’s case, I liken it to putting up my hands — desperately jumping up and down and waving my arms around — trying to try to stop a train; only to have that locomotive plow me over me when she died.
When I chose to tell her story in order to own it and hopefully decrease the stigma, I figured our local TV audience would see it, form their opinions and move on, as most do in the 24-hour news cycle. But I was wrong. Within 12 hours of making Emily’s story public, I was on a plane to New York to tell it to America on CBS This Morning. It was a whirlwind, but I clearly remember sitting in a car in the middle of New York City traffic, wondering, what in the hell am I doing here?
No sooner had I asked myself that question, when I had only what you could call an out-of-body experience. In my mind I was transported above the City and the whole country, as if I were looking down from an airplane. Then I felt it — the overwhelming pain. It was despair, loss and grief, hurling up from below like daggers into my heart. It was the pain of every parent — every person — who has lost a loved one in this horrible drug epidemic. It was almost too much for me to bear. I took a deep breath, inhaling all that pain and I had the sudden realization that I was there to speak for those who would not be asked. I was in a position with a platform to capture the attention of the nation and the world. I had a duty to change hearts and minds to try to stop the misery from growing even larger.
I have taken that responsibility seriously and thankfully I haven’t had to do it alone. Countless people have taken my hands to hold me up; even when I believed I could not take another step forward. As much as we all want to run from pain, I have learned to walk into it and to trust that I will survive. The enormity of my loss still hits me like a gut punch, several times a day. I make every effort not to distract myself in order to feel better. I have also found that by taking the focus off my own loss and putting it on helping others, I can channel my grief in a constructive way.
I have embraced the mess of addiction, overdose and grief. Many others have remained right here by my side. When we, as Emily’s Hope, presented a check of $250,000 to the new Avera Addiction Care Center for a scholarship fund for treatment, I expected to feel relief. A part of me secretly hoped that it would ease the pain of losing Emily. Unfortunately it felt hollow. Instead, I realized that it was the journey over the last 18 months that has helped my heart the most. The encounters with those suffering from substance use disorder from all walks of life; the fellow grieving parents; as well as people in the trenches — from law enforcement to counselors — working everyday to save lives. Every person who has given their support to Emily’s Hope has also given me the gift of healing. While grief can be a very lonely place, I am grateful so many are helping me embrace the mess.
Faith, Hope & Courage,