Grief from the Other Side Episode 2: Finding Hope When Hope Seems Lost

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Logo from Grief from the Other Side PodcastErica is a mom, a nationally certified school psychologist, and an aunt. In this episode of our “Grief from the Other Side,” podcast, Erica shares her journey of losing her nephew Hunter to overdose. As a mental health professional who works with young adults, she was very involved in trying to help Hunter with his substance use disorder. Erica openly shares about her grief process and what she did as a parent, a professional, and family member to find hope when hope seemed lost.

Erica shares that several books were helpful in talking with her young daughter about loss. These include: “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst,  “The Goodbye Book” by Todd Parr, “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” by Leo Buscaglia, and “Chester Racoon and the Acorn Full of Memories“by Audrey Penn.

Click here to listen to “Grief from the Other Side Episode 2: Finding Hope When Hope Seems Lost.”

Transcript:

Speaker 1:

Grief, from the other side. Where the bereavement experts at Chesapeake Life Center talk about living with loss, sharing stories of hope and resilience.

Amy Stapleton:

Hi everyone. I’m Amy Stapleton, Manager of Bereavement Services at Hospice of the Chesapeake, Chesapeake Life Center. I’m also a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Bereavement Counselor here at the Chesapeake Life Center. I’m joined today by my colleague Tammy Turner.

Tammy Turner:

Hey, I’m Tammy Turner. I am the Community Education Manager for Hospice of the Chesapeake and today we are sharing Erica’s story. So this is our second story that we get to share. Amy, give me a little bit of a description about Erica.

Amy Stapleton:

Tammy, I’m so grateful that Erica is willing to join this series. She comes to this conversation as a Licensed Psychologist, a school psychologist in fact, someone that works and knows young adults well. And yet her life, her family was deeply impacted by the loss of her nephew from a substance use disorder. I think what you’re going to hear from Erica is the struggle of loving someone with a substance use disorder and wanting to be there for them, to try to help, to love them through it, and coming to a realization that you can do all you can, you can know all you can, even as a psychologist, even as a mental health professional, and sometimes that’s still not enough.

Amy Stapleton:

So we’re going to hear from Erica about her own journey as an aunt, as a professional, and as a parent as she talks about what this was like, sharing her grief process with her daughter and kind of identifying for herself when she needed help. The focus of that is really on finding hope when hope seems lost and I think you’ll hear a thread in Erica’s story that there were moments of hope along the way that she held onto and that really made all the difference.

Tammy Turner:

Yeah. So let’s take a listen.

Amy Stapleton:

Hi friends. I am excited today to be interviewing, talking with Erica Chandler. Just an amazing human who has really transformed grief in a powerful way. So today we’re going to be talking about finding hope when hope seems lost. Erica, if you could start off just telling us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do in the world.

Erica Chandler:

Sure. So let’s see. I am a school psychologist. I have been a school psychologist for, oh my, about 14 years now. I am a mother and an aunt. Those are my big qualifiers. You know, I am really involved and really make it my passion to help others and to advocate for others and bring awareness to mental health issues as well as now due to losing Hunter, specifically surrounding those with substance use disorder.

Speaker 1:

What is lost?

Amy Stapleton:

Thank you for all the work that you do in the world and especially these days in bringing just an awareness to the impact of substance use disorders on families. As we know, the opioid epidemic and overdose has really impacted so many people in our community, around the country. And in 2016 you and your family felt that really closely. Can you share with us a little bit about your nephew Hunter?

Erica Chandler:

I was extremely close with Hunter, as I am his brothers as well. But because I think I was 15 when he was born, I really got to play up the cool aunt role. So we really connected and I really truly looked at him as my child to be honest. So I became aware of Hunter’s addiction and struggles with opioids when he was 16 I believe. That’s when I say when I became aware because we did not know that that was happening. It was a struggle my sister was privately going through. But when we did find out, I live in Maryland, but my family’s from New York. We’re from New York originally. So as soon as I found out that he was in crisis I was in New York helping my sister and my family with what we were going to do to try to help him.

Erica Chandler:

And that included at the time he was in an adolescent hospital in crisis. But we were able to get him into his first rehab, inpatient rehab. I was literally there when the ambulance transported him to the inpatient facility. I looked at him, I told him I loved him and I said it’s going to be okay. So I really was in it with my sister and my family as soon as we became aware of what was going on.

Amy Stapleton:

I want to pause you right there for a minute. I think you said something so significant about your sister struggling and kind of carrying this burden alone. Can you speak briefly about just kind of the stigma and shame and weight that sometimes families kind of internalize as they’re navigating the impact of substances on people they love?

Erica Chandler:

Yeah, it is tremendous. The isolation, the stigma associated with it. And I’ve had a lot of loss, different types of loss actually. The stigma and isolation associated with having someone in your family going through this is beyond anything that I can compare it to professionally or personally. My sister really struggled to let anybody know what was happening. And I think that is a huge part of everyone’s struggle when they have somebody going through this. Yeah.

Amy Stapleton:

And here you are, this tremendous resource. Right? Like you know mental health, you know kids. And even then, for somebody that you love, what a barrier that can be to just not feel like you can reach out.

Erica Chandler:

Yeah, yeah. I think that being a mental health professional brought interesting perspective challenges as well. But even with the background and the experience it was tremendously difficult. It was tremendously difficult for all of us. Hunter was, like I said about 16 I think at first rehab. He died at 21, just after his 21st birthday. In between that time he did relapse and there was recovery and there was relapse. He ended up in Florida through a more intensive treatment process. And throughout that process of his recovery and the relapse and then his loss due to that was such a traumatizing experience. Like I said, I was very close with him. So my sister and I were like tag teaming, helping, intervening.

Erica Chandler:

Leading up to his loss he had been almost clean and sober and in recovery for almost two years. It was the longest he had gone, and was doing exceptionally well when he relapsed and died from the overdose. The weeks leading up to trying to get him into treatment again was, I don’t want to say… It was extremely traumatizing and made the loss even more difficult because the weeks leading up to that and us trying to figure out what was going on and he wasn’t telling us that he was using again and we thought it was more mental health in terms of depression and anxiety starting to peak. So that process, he called me all the time.

Erica Chandler:

We were extremely close. We talked about everything. We talked about the drug use, we talked about everything under the sun. He would call me if he needed help. So those weeks leading up were filled with all night phone calls, middle of the night phone calls. “Aunt Erica I need your help. Aunt Erica I don’t know what to do. Aunt Erica.” So that was leading up to it. And that is what families are also experiencing over and over again if there’s relapse and recovery. Not knowing where they are, not knowing what’s happening, not knowing if they’re alive, not knowing what’s… That’s in itself, separate from the loss, a very traumatizing process and experience.

Amy Stapleton:

And a very real grief that, as you say, even anticipating the loss, but seeing all the losses along the way, the changes in a person you love, the way that it changes their relationships, the way it changes them. And I’m listening to this and I’m thinking okay, so you’re Aunt Erica, you’re a sister, you’re working. You have a family and you have this beautiful child who is also witnessing I’m guessing, the impact of substance on the life of her cousin. So were you talking to your daughter about that all along the way?

Erica Chandler:

So no. We did not talk about… Again, he was in Florida at the time. So my daughter wasn’t in person with him a lot, and in fact, when she was it was during his times of recovery. She did sometimes wonder if he wasn’t around when everybody else was around. But again, she was pretty young to sort of see what was happening there. So we did not talk about it prior. She even [inaudible 00:12:44] with my nieces and nephews, she does know that Mommy/Aunt Erica is also a resource to those. So she does know that sometimes Mommy is going to help our family and talk and I’m going to need time to go talk with Hunter or I’m going to need time to go talk with somebody. So she sort of knows that was sort of my role too. But she did not know what was happening prior to. I think she sensed probably some of the crisis because I was frantic a lot more leading up to it, but she did not know before.

Amy Stapleton:

So when Hunter died, how did you talk about that with her?

Erica Chandler:

We told Penelope that Hunter had an illness. We did not realize he was as sick as he was. That the illness impacted his brain and that it led to his body to stop working. So that is literally what we told her when we initially found out because again, we were going to have to go to New York so we needed to inform her about what was happening. So that was the extent of what we told her. Then as time went on and after I sought support through the Chesapeake Life Center we had more conversations with her. In part because of questions she had. She knew I was going through grief counseling and support and there were some things that were impacting me with her questioning that led me, with support of my counselor to really think about how else I can give her some more information. How I could do that in a more developmentally appropriate way. So we took it a step further a couple months later, always dialoguing with her about things and obviously she saw me grieving so she saw that firsthand.

Erica Chandler:

So we decided to tell her more. We told her that the illness that he had actually impacted his decision making and that decision making led him to take medication that he should not have taken and that again led to his passing. And that caused his body to stop working because of medication. We then used that as another educational moment for her. She has asthma. She’s not just on an inhaler. She’s got lots of maintenance medications. And we’ve always talked to her, like “You never use it without Mommy and Daddy.” We have a routine. She’s been on it for many years. So I said “You know how you take medicine? That medication you need to stay healthy. That medication has to come from your doctor and then it has to come from a special pharmacy doctor to give it to you. And your name’s on that bottle and that bottle is only for you. You can’t share it even though other people have asthma. I have asthma. I can’t use your medicine.”

Erica Chandler:

So we used that as an opportunity to then talk about safe use of medication. It’s interesting. Two things happened when we said that to her. One, which was a heartbreaking moment, but it showed that she was kind of getting it, she asked me why Hunter didn’t ask his mom if he was allowed to take the medicine and why didn’t he call her and ask. So again, I said “You know what? He was an adult and he didn’t. Maybe he should have, but that was a choice. And that was part of his disease. He didn’t really know to ask for the help he needed.”

Amy Stapleton:

I want to just say and really acknowledge how important language is when talking with kids about death in general, but especially around sudden and traumatic loss. You have used such an important kind of tool. We call it a building block approach when talking with kids about death. You used some really significant words like “his body stopped working, he took too much medicine that wasn’t his, it wasn’t meant for his body.” And I think kids are naturally curious and what a gift it was to your daughter to just be able to, even in your own grief, kind of acknowledge that curiosity and still tell the truth at a developmental and appropriate way.

Amy Stapleton:

I imagine kind of seeing how your daughter has found her own voice in a lot of ways around this loss. I think she can be such an ambassador in talking with other kids because we know this impacts so many families. I’m wondering as someone in this field, you do this work, when you were in it with Hunter, really in it, can you talk about just that tension of you know all the resources, you know what’s available and yet there’s still that kind of piece that we can’t reach? Can you talk about that struggle a little bit?

Erica Chandler:

Yeah, because that was a big struggle that I think also impacted me after his loss more than I realized because I’m an action oriented, problem solving person. So yeah, I knew resources. I sought out resources. I researched and tried to work hand in hand with my sister and my family in it. And in talking with Hunter and during the crisis, using the tools and the therapeutic things that I could to help him. But there was still an inability to obviously control his choices. So ultimately they were his. But that was… I felt I was so invested in the process with him that the struggle that he was going through became my struggle and I couldn’t… It was Aunt Erica and it was like a mental health professional and it was very draining and it was very difficult. Where those things crossed and blurred I couldn’t separate myself from being either one of those. And I really felt like that was going to be such a tremendous help, and it was. But that I really thought, to be honest, I don’t love using these words, but I thought I could save him.

Amy Stapleton:

And I think you’re not alone there. So many of us who do this work, again are impacted by the results of substance use in our families and there is that natural… I mean, how could we not want to help? That’s what we do. It’s what we’re good at. That’s why we do the work we do. So we’re talking a lot about what’s lost, what was lost in this process. And often in that stigma around substance use disorder and just substance use in general, it can get really hard to kind of tease out the use and the disorder from the person. Tell us a little bit about Hunter as a person. What was he like?

Erica Chandler:

Yeah. And I couldn’t agree more. So I think that’s actually what makes the struggle even greater and different from other loss, other tragic loss, and other types of loss actually. I always say that cancer doesn’t steal, rob, and lie to you. So there is definitely a greater challenge that comes with that. So Hunter was an athlete, a runner, a marathoner, a triathlete actually at a very young age. He was sensitive and kind and funny and just could be so silly and so great with his siblings and his cousin and just a beautiful light inside and out. That absolutely was Hunter.

Speaker 1:

What remains?

Amy Stapleton:

What’s helped? What’s helped you manage your grief and support your daughter in managing hers?

Erica Chandler:

I’ve had a lot of loss actually. I lost an uncle when I was in high school suddenly. I lost a friend, actually it was my first love when I was a freshman in college to a car accident. And then a couple years later I actually lost a friend to a heroin overdose. At the time it was not the epidemic or known to be what it is now. And so I’ve had a lot of loss. Then I lost my brother. Two years later we lost Hunter. So through that, I was kind of coping, doing things on my own, and trying to work through that. But when I lost Hunter I instantly, instantly reached out for help. I knew I could not handle that on my own. I knew that I needed support to walk through this process.

Erica Chandler:

So what helped was realizing that I could not do this as I had been doing it previously and reaching out for support, which came from the Chesapeake Life Center. I truly believe that that work and that collaboration with my therapist is what has gotten me where I am. The tools, the hard work that I put in. I went often. I went for longer than maybe usual. But I did have an internal drive to get to a better place. I knew that this was really going to knock me down so I lined up the support as soon as I could. I didn’t wait. Others in my family waited after the loss and some never really got that additional support. But I am so happy that I did not wait and that I had someone to go through that journey with to help me work through it.

Erica Chandler:

And that helped my daughter, and that helped my family too, my extended family as well. But that helped my daughter tremendously. I know that in thinking about the stigma again and the loss. During a loss again, no one’s signing up for food trains, to be honest, when you lose somebody like this. That was the case when I had other losses, but it wasn’t the case this time, which only made it more isolating and more challenging because of that stigma. No one’s talking about it. Even when I openly said “It’s okay to share with my coworkers. It’s okay to tell my schools why I am not there.” I mean I literally said “It’s okay to tell everyone that I lost my nephew to an overdose.” I immediately was like it’s okay.

Erica Chandler:

But those e-mails either didn’t go out at all or they did and they never specified anything, including it being a nephew. Meanwhile, for other losses that I’m on the receiving end of those communications it’s shared. It’s shared. So from a work standpoint and from a personal one, the response was very different and it made it that much more difficult. But the journey I walked through with support from the grief counseling was absolutely what got me sort of to the other side of it. And I think also what like I said, helped Penelope. I think that Penelope’s grief, I don’t think it impacted me as much as my grief process impacted her if that makes sense.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah, say a little more about that.

Erica Chandler:

So I really, like I said, I was honest with her that I was getting help for this. I was honest, she saw me crying, she saw me grieving at appropriate levels. Some of those required private grieving moments. But I really did want to involve her as best I could throughout the whole process because, and I’ll be honest, from all the losses I had from childhood to now, I internalize such a fear of death and of people dying, it still exists, it’s still real and there for me. I wanted to do what I could to reduce that in my daughter because now here she is at extremely young age, four, five years old, my brother, my nephew now, going through this. So I wanted to involve her.

Erica Chandler:

So because I was getting the help and I was working through it, I could help her. I could articulate and present things to her because I had already either worked through it or worked through it with someone to support and encourage me that what I was doing would be helpful instead of harmful. So that was tremendous and it allowed us to talk about it and it allowed us to de-stigmatize it, and then led her to also be able to do the same thing. So I think because she saw me go through it and I shared that with her and the tools with her, I think that helped me. Knowing that I was helping her and easing some of her pain and her confusion over it. So I see, like I said I think I see myself as… We impacted each other in that process, but that’s because I chose to just be really honest with her and open with her about it as it was unfolding.

Amy Stapleton:

And I think sometimes as parents and as guardians all we want to do is protect our kids. So we think oh, I can’t openly show or express my grief or emotion. That’s somehow going to spill over onto them and make them more sad or worried or upset. And yet, what we know is that when we don’t, they’re sensing and feeling that anyways. So what I hear is that you really equipped Penelope to navigate her own grief and from this very young age understand that there are things that we can talk about that we don’t have to reinforce that stigma and secrecy in our family.

Erica Chandler:

And you know, I mentioned it earlier, when we told Penelope more about the loss and how he died and what it was due to, in that moment, as hard as that was… I mean, my husband and I were fighting back the tears, non-verbally he’s trying to encourage me to get the word out because I did not want to. I mean, it was not easy. I did not want to do this. I did not want to tell her more. It felt like maybe this isn’t a good idea. Oh my gosh, I’m about to tell her drugs. But we pushed through it and when we did, we literally saw a lightness come across my daughter. I can’t… My husband and I, we at that point broke down. But by choosing to talk about it, it made it better. It made it better. It made us better and it made her better and there was a literal sigh of relief from her because she clearly had questions.

Erica Chandler:

And even though we were asking and dialoguing and talking about it, there were things there that she wasn’t articulating and saying. So it really lightened her emotional state as well. And we used lots of books. I share this a lot. I am, especially with young kids, so big on using books to talk about grief or hard topics or whatever it may be. But we really used books a lot with her. In fact, the second thing I did before we went to New York when Hunter died was I sent someone to the library. I immediately sent my sister-in-law. I said “I need you to go to the library right now. I need you to go ask for all of these books.” So that really helped her as well.

Speaker 1:

What’s next?

Amy Stapleton:

Talk a little bit about this tremendous organization that came out of Hunter’s death that you and Penelope kind of started together I guess, and the work that you’re doing now.

Erica Chandler:

I really wanted… Like, with my brother. Let me backtrack a minute. So with my brother, when I lost my brother it was easier for me to figure out what that legacy was, what that continuation of him could be because he was an avid outdoors man and kayak and canoer. I immediately knew that I would make that part of our continued journey and process as a family. On anniversaries, on birthdays we do that to honor him. With Hunter I struggled a great deal. Even after six months, year of having support to work through this. I wanted there to be a “Okay, now what?” moment and thing. And I couldn’t figure it out. I was still so deeply impacted. I couldn’t walk under a bridge, like outdoors without wondering if somebody had used drugs there. I could not go into a public restroom and think “I wonder if somebody has used drugs there?” It was everywhere and I couldn’t get out of the trauma of it.

Erica Chandler:

But something that, a pivotal moment for me was… I’m a mental health first aid instructor as well. So I teach mental health first aid for people working with youth and adults. And Hunter knew this. I had been doing that before he passed and he was really excited about it. I was giving my first class after he had passed, and I was preparing for the class and I had the ah ha moment. In preparing, when I always tell participants that you are not responsible for the outcome. You are not responsible for the outcome. And I make sure they know that when they are finished, that they can do all they can to reduce risk and they can do all they can to help, but at the end, the result is not for them. It’s not for them. And in that moment I realized that I’m sitting there telling everybody else all this, I needed to release that myself and I needed to let go of the guilt and the sense of responsibility I felt that I had to saving him and accept I did, I literally did everything that I instruct people to do.

Erica Chandler:

And it was that moment. I literally said “I do all this. I did all of this with Hunter. I didn’t even know I was doing it and I did it all. So if I did it all, that’s okay and that’s it. That’s where I ended in that process.” So in letting go of that, I saw hope again. I literally felt hope again. Like okay wait, I can continue to help other people in their process and with mental illness and with other mental health issues because they can get better and I can still influence that. I can’t control their outcome, but I can still influence that. So that started me sort of in that direction. And my dad also had said to me “You know Erica, perhaps the help that you gave him allowed him to get to his 21st birthday. It allowed him to experience love for the first time. It gave him more time. It didn’t give him all the time that we wanted, but it gave him more time. So you have to remember that. So there was hope in those moments that you gave him and memories that might have been created as a result of that that we’re all hanging onto because you did help that day or that night.”

Erica Chandler:

So that sense of hope came sort of flooding back thankfully. I attended an Overdose Awareness Day in our county. One year it was actually around the one year anniversary of losing Hunter. And it was there, my husband and I were there and we saw and learned about some of the crisis responders and the help that existed in our county for those struggling with a substance use disorder. And they were speaking and all the helpers were sort of like so stoic and so professional and together. And I just thought to myself, I know what I do on a daily basis and it’s nothing compared to what they do and it’s exhausting and it’s a lot. And I was like, I know they don’t want the attention, but we’ve got to figure out something to do. We have to do something. So it was around the holiday and my daughter and I were talking and we always do things in the community. So I said “Is there something we could do?” And it literally spun from there.

Erica Chandler:

Again Hunter is my nephew and her cousin. She called him Hunti. So whenever she referenced Hunter, when they were on the phone or whatever it was her Hunti. So we sort of created this project, Hunti’s Hope Hunters. We decided that we wanted to do something for the helpers. We won a grant, a kid grant that had just started at the time we thought of this. We applied for the grant. We got the grant. And so our first event we basically thanked and gave thank you packages and bookmarks that she made to the first responders in our county to thank them for what they do. It was tremendous. We both spoke at it, we shared our stories. The first time we really shared our story publicly. My daughter shared. And since that time, so it’s been three years. This our third year with Hunti’s Hope Hunters, we have won the grant for the third time and we have been able to partner with other small businesses and other non-profits.

Erica Chandler:

We created and put together 32 self-care packages for women in recovery. One of those has children in recovery, so we also supported them. And we dropped off to a local non-profit organization that supports women and has residences for them, and we surprised them with some self-care. So that project, Hunti’s Hope Hunters has absolutely been the what now for us and how we continue to keep Hunter’s love and presence and influence with us. My daughter has even said before “Mom, you know that if Hunter didn’t die we wouldn’t be doing this and helping all these people?” So it’s almost like she sees so much good that has come from it. That has become more the focus than the loss, and that’s been tremendous for all of us and has helped tremendously. Of course it’s still hard and there are really hard days, but finding the hope, looking for the hope, giving the hope, and sharing it, and helping to help somebody else not feel that stigma and that isolation is ultimately what has helped us and continues to help us in our journey.

Amy Stapleton:

Such a powerful gift of grief. One that we don’t want, one that we don’t anticipate and yet, a real acknowledgement of how grief can be transformed. Any final thoughts? I guess any messages for people, families who are experiencing a loss due to overdose or just struggling with the reality of it even before a death? Any final thoughts?

Erica Chandler:

Find others going through it. Don’t do it alone. There is help. There is help out there and there are others going through it. So you don’t have to feel it alone. You don’t have to go through that. And before a loss especially, actually. Because it is a traumatizing process and there’s loss and grief associated with the process of having somebody go through that. So reach out, talk to somebody, ask for the help, and just know that you’re not alone.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah. Thank you so much for your time today, for just your honesty and realness. I appreciate how accessible you’re making your grief, but also your hope. There are times certainly when the weight of grief gets too heavy to hold. So as you say, just knowing you’re not alone, you’re not the only one out there experiencing or thinking or feeling these things makes all the difference in the world. Thank you for all the ways that you continue to give to our community, to our children, and the difference that you make in the world. So take good care and I hope to see you soon.

Erica Chandler:

Thank you. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

Amy Stapleton:

So the thing about Erica’s story Tammy is that she has found a way to really transform her grief, to find hope in doing. And I think in her story you really hear and feel the struggle of loving someone with a substance use disorder, and yet she’s been able to kind of tease out who her nephew was and what she loved about him from the impact of his substance use. And I know that’s a struggle that many families have. So I’m glad that she was able to share that and offer that hope to families in that struggle too.

Tammy Turner:

And in sharing that, trying to take away some of that stigma of the loss due to overdose because she shared a lot about that as well, how hard that was. Yeah. So the next story that we have is Paris’s so I look forward to hearing hers next month.

Amy Stapleton:

Me too Tammy. Take good care.

Tammy Turner:

All right. Thanks Amy.

Speaker 1:

Grief from the Other Side podcast is made possible thanks to the generous support from the John and Cathy Belcher Institute. For more information on grief and loss services visit chesapeakelifecenter.org or call 888-501-7077.

 

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