On May 19, 2013 my son Matthew died. He left us due to a combination of fentanyl and alcohol. That’s a lethal combination of substances to ingest. Matt was living in a sober home in a nearby city when this occurred. I’d spoken to him the evening before and everything seemed fine. So when the police showed up at my door to tell me he was gone I was truly shocked. In fact, I argued with them at first, insisting that they were wrong, that I’d just spoken to him, and he was fine. As awful as that day was, there was much I didn't know at the time. Maybe that's just as well, too. I wasn't thinking of the future and how that would play out without Matt. I wasn't thinking of the things I would try to do to remember him. And I wasn't thinking of the anniversaries which seemed too precious not to mark. Finding ways to mark those anniversaries is what I'd like to write about today. Perhaps those of you who’ve lost a child to drugs will find something worthwhile, an idea, maybe something to adopt or adapt to your own situation.
Matthew was 27 years 10 months and 19 days old when he died (but who's counting?). He loved the outdoors, hiking, and camping. He loved animals too; especially dogs. He was an avid reader and loved discovering obscure movies on Netflix. And he loved his family.
He also suffered from and struggled with substance use disorder for eleven years. He used everything from alcohol to heroin. I don't think I could name one specific substance that he was addicted to rather he would use pretty much anything he could get his hands on. He was impulsive and a risk taker.
When Matthew died in 2013 we had a traditional Catholic funeral at my home church and Matthews ashes were buried in our church cemetery. I ordered a gravestone a few weeks later which was installed late winter 2014. I view this as my first personal memorial act. I could’ve just kept it to his name and dates (birth and death) but I wanted something, just a little bit more. Finally, I settled on the last thing he said to me when we spoke on the phone the night before he died. Those words were, “Love you too.” So now every time I visit the cemetery in my mind I hear him telling me he loves me.
Soon the first anniversary was coming up. I wanted to do something to remember him and I wanted it to be positive. My family wanted to participate, especially Matt's young cousins who missed him desperately. I remembered the butterfly that had visited me a couple of months after Matthew's death. It landed on my screen door and stayed there for several hours.
I picked a space in my backyard and ordered 3 “butterfly bushes.” They’re supposed to flower and attract butterflies. Then I found a place online where they would engrave a river stone and I had it engraved with his name and “Love you too”. On the day of Matthew's anniversary as many members of my family as possible came to my home to celebrate Matt's life. His cousins helped plant the bushes and place the stone. Everything was watered and taken care of. We all talked and laughed, and cried, missing Matt and wishing he was there.
We then had a cookout and once it was dark I brought out the surprise. I had roughly 20 white helium balloons with tiny led lights in them. I let anyone who wanted to write a “message to Matt” with a felt tip pen and then we went out and let them go together. It was amazing watching those tiny lights move higher and higher. I could feel Matt with us at that moment.
That anniversary was deeply satisfying to me. It felt respectful and yet fun at the same time. I know Matt was smiling.
Matt's second anniversary was a bit more subdued. I found the second year after Matthew's death significantly more difficult than the first. Perhaps the second year was when reality set in? I'm not sure but the pain was intense. So on May 19th 2015, I kept it simple. I accepted the love and support of my family. I attended mass at my local church and if memory serves I made one of Matthew's favorite foods for supper.
Later that month I did what has come to be one of my favorite things to do. I took roughly $50 and went to the dollar store. I bought shampoo, soap, toothpaste, tooth brushes, deoderant, razors, hand cream etc. You can buy quite a bit with a relatively small amount of money. I took all that stuff and donated it to the small non-profit treatment center where Matt had gone. There are lots of places like that and all of them operate on a shoestring. I made the donation in Matthew's memory. They were happy to receive it and I was thrilled to give it. I also collected winter coats and jackets, donating them to the treatment center in Matthew's memory. So many of their clients arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a warm jacket can be an encouragement. Another time I donated t-shirts with recovery slogans to the same center, again in Matt's name. You never know when some small act of kindness or generosity can propel someone’s recovery forward.
This year has been more challenging. My health has declined precipitously and I was unable to organize any type of “event”. In fact, I currently reside in a nursing home, so my actions are limited. However the love I have for my son is not. This year I decided to spend some time with old photographs. I put a slide show together set to music. The evening of May 18th I wrote an email to family members and attached the slideshow. I sent it out early in the morning of May 19th. The response from my family was wonderful. There was lots of memory sharing and laughter and again I could feel Matt's spirit close to me. Later I decided to share the slideshow on Facebook where it generated some lovely reactions from friends. I also posted it on my son's “memorial page on Facebook. Within 24 hours some old friends of Matt had posted and shared pictures from when they were all around 13 or 14 years old; pictures I had never seen before! It was very gratifying.
My purpose in sharing what I’ve done to memorialize my son is to encourage you to figure out what feels right in your own situation. We’re all different and will find our own way. I've known parents who have done virtually nothing outwardly to memorialize their child beyond the funeral. The anniversaries are just too painful and they choose to just let them pass. Others do something more dramatic every year. I know a family that formed a non-profit and host a 5K run every year around the anniversary of their daughters death. The money raised is donated to a local treatment center. There’s no wrong way to grieve and there’s no wrong way to remember our lost children.
When my son was little, he loved the “Back to the Future” movies. When he was 7 or so we would rent the whole series on VHS and enjoyed what we called a “film festival” on a rainy Saturday or Sunday. One-day last year I was feeling especially lonely for Matthew so remembering that, I decided to do it again. I found all three movies online, popped some popcorn and watched them. Again, it was a time that I felt close to him. I liked to think he hung out and watched with me.
Whatever way we choose to remember or memorialize our children is fine. Don't be coerced into doing something because “everyone” thinks you should. Do what's right for you and your family. Let your heart be in charge and your love will show.
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