Dealing with the loss of a child

Alvin Elliot, Alumni Coordinator at Las Vegas Recovery Center

Alvin Elliott asks: How does a person get through burying their 21-year-old son—the apple of their eye?  

As any grief-stricken parent can tell you, there’s nothing more excruciating than the pain of losing a child. The grief can feel so deep and endless that it can be difficult to imagine how you’ll ever navigate through it.

For Alvin Elliott, alumni coordinator at Las Vegas Recovery Center, coping with the loss of his adult son has been an ongoing process. Even 13 years later, Alvin reports that there are still days when the sadness consumes him. Although the pain has never gone away entirely, Alvin has found several helpful ways to cope, including “leaning into” the pain and relying on friends and family for emotional support.

Below is a transcript and video interview Alvin recorded for the website Life: The Basic Manual. In it, Alvin shares the story of losing his son to addiction in the hopes that it will help others struggling through a similar experience.

Alvin’s Story

About 13 years ago, my son was murdered. My son was 21 years old. His name was Alvin.

He was a good boy. He was an athletic boy; a curious boy. He was an intellectual. Don’t tell my other kids, but he was my favorite child. He made me a better father and a kinder person.

But despite the love I had for him, and the love he had for me, we started to drift apart. And one of the things that was the impetus of that was his drug use. It started with marijuana and then went on to other drugs.

He died August the 4th, 2003. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the details I got from the police report say that he was stabbed and they found him staggering down the street. They took him to the hospital and he died alone. He was a John Doe. He didn’t have any identification on him, and as a result, it was hard for us to find him. For a couple of days, we searched a couple of hospitals and eventually we were able to locate him; he’d been in the morgue for a week.

This wasn’t an experience I was prepared to live through. When I look back at that time, I can’t say how I got through it. How does a person get through burying their 21-year-old son—the apple of their eye? What I had to do is I had to turn to friends and family. I had to turn to the relationship I had with my Creator. I had to really get into a level of spirituality that I had never experienced before. I found that I needed to use every bit of energy and love that I could draw on—every resource I could draw on—in order to find the strength to go on.

How to Cope: Alvin’s 8 Tips for Dealing with the Loss of a Child

1. Know that it will be hard

Losing a child–whether it be to overdose or some other means—is an agonizing experience. It’s expected that you’ll grieve for a long time and that that the grief will hurt—a lot. As Alvin explained in the video, “I’m not here to tell you that it’s not going to be hard. What I had to do was find a group of people; find a path that helped me get through it.” Know that the weeks and months ahead are going to be marked by intense sadness, but also know that you don’t have to do it alone. Now is the time to lean on friends and family for support.

2. Give it time

In the beginning, it can feel as though the pain will never end; that you’ll never be able to make it through a day without crying, but Alvin urges parents to be patient. “Life does go on,” he says. “The pain that you may feel in your heart—there’s no such thing as getting over it, but it’ll hurt less. I know from my own experience that over time, it’ll hurt less.”

3. Alcohol and drugs won’t help

You may be tempted to try to mask the pain by turning to substances, but as a person in long-term recovery from addiction, Alvin cautions against going down that route, saying: “Diving into the bag or diving into the bottle is not the escape. You will not escape from the loss. Once you wake up or come to, the loss will still be there.”

4. Embrace a spiritual outlet if you have one

“I had to dig deep into my level of spirituality; to my connection to the Universe,” Alvin said. Although religion and spirituality isn’t for everyone, many going through the grieving process have found that trusting in a higher power of sorts—in a power greater than one’s self—can be of tremendous help.

5. Talk to a grief counselor

A grief counselor can help you walk through the grieving process and can act as an objective sounding board when you need to vent. A counselor can also help provide some needed perspective. “After my son died,” Alvin said, “I went to a woman who specializes in grief and one of the things I got from that is that your grief is something you’ll have to address. You can’t take it lightly.”

6. Take the necessary time to process the loss

“You can’t just go back to work and act like things are normal; it’s a process,” advises Alvin. “Your process is going to be your process. Your time is going to be your time. If I had rushed myself through; and if I hadn’t taken the time to process my loss, I don’t know where I’d be.”

 7. The pain will never fully go away, but it will lessen

“It’s been 13 years,” explains Alvin. “The pain I experience is a lot less. But the sadness still comes. I don’t believe that I’ll ever be out of the woods from this experience. I don’t believe that there will ever be a time when I’ll be able to say I feel better about what happened. At times, the way I feel today is similar to the way I felt when I got that phone call. When that feeling comes, I just try to the best of my ability to utilize the tools and utilize the things that have helped me through.”

 8. Lean into the pain

“Lean forward into the feeling,” Alvin urges. “Don’t run away. Don’t try to mask it. Don’t turn the radio up. Don’t get on your phone. Lean into the feeling and let the feeling wash through you. After I’ve done that, I feel better.”

It might seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to lessen the pain is to embrace it. The next time you feel a wave of sadness, try to sit with the feeling instead of running from it. If you can, note the sensation without attaching any judgment or meaning. If you do this several times in a row, you’ll likely find that the next time the pain hits, it won’t feel quite as intense.

Las Vegas Recovery Center (LVRC) is a pain recovery and alcohol and drug rehab in Las Vegas. In addition to treating addiction and chronic pain, LVRC also offers a comprehensive Family Renewal Program for friends, family members and community members looking for addiction information and support.