Our friend Pat died last week. He was 30 years old. Yesterday, I went to Pat’s funeral in the suburbs of Philadelphia. There were at least 200 people there, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s. It was very somber, even by a funeral’s standard.
Pat got sober as a young man. He went to Rutgers and lived in Recovery Housing. I met him in 2005. I was finishing up my masters in social work and he was a rowdy undergraduate full of zest and life. He was close friends with a number of guys that I eventually became quite tight with. Pat was a strong member of the recovery community and he was extremely welcoming and supportive of newcomers. He was the RA of the Recovery House during the 2007-08 school year (which was the year before I was hired to oversee the program). Pat was never my student or my client. I was never responsible for him. We were both just members of the Rutgers Recovery Community who felt a strong sense of gratitude and dedication to the Recovery House. Eventually we became friends.
Pat shared his experience with me as a RA and made some suggestions for improving the program. He played in our Alumni-Student softball games, sang at Karaoke with his friends, and spoke with current students about the importance of academics and internships. He shared his time and experience.
In the past 18 months, I went to Costa Rica with Pat for a bachelor party, was in a wedding party with him and attended two other weddings together of mutual friends. He enjoyed smoking cigars on the beach, fine dinners, a good joke and dancing like a lunatic. I knew him. After 9+ years of sobriety, Pat relapsed. I’m not going to get into details, but I’ll say this:
1) He stopped doing what he used to do in order to stay sober
2) His close friends were upset and concerned
3) Pat made a series of poor choices and his life got increasingly worse
4) People talked to him and he wouldn’t hear it
5) He cut people off
6) He put together about two weeks of sobriety this fall. Our friends visited him and told me, “It was nice to have my friend back.”
7) A month later he was dead.
One of my closest friends called me on Tuesday night and told me the news. I felt sad because Pat was my friend. I felt bad because Pat was an alumnus of the Rutgers Recovery program. I felt frustrated because Pat had once turned his life around. I felt awful for his closest friends. I felt devastated for his family, especially his parents.
I lost my friend Fraser in September of 2002. I had tried for several years to get him sober. His death was the final event that put me on the path of my life’s work. Both Rutgers and myself have written about it. Pat’s death reminded me of Fraser again and all the feelings that I went through in the aftermath. I sent out an email to his closest friends:
I am so sorry for your loss. I know this pain all too well. I just wanted to share my experience with you all in the hope that it might be of some help.
(1) Write down everything you can about Pat. Things he said, things you did together, jokes played, things that pissed you off and little gestures. Your mind will be flooded with memories over the next two weeks, and then they will slowly fade. You will never remember him as well as you do right now. Write it down. Also…it will help you grieve.
(2) I was angry at Fraser for dying and then I would feel bad about being angry at my dead friend. It was confusing. It took me a while to reconcile all of those feelings. It is ok and natural for you to be angry at Pat.
(3) There was nothing you could do to help. Do not blame yourselves in any way or carry that burden. You were all good examples and good friends to him.
(4) Double up on your coping mechanisms, whether they be therapy, AA, exercise, yoga, meditation, hanging out with friends, hiking, etc….Do this for a number of weeks.
(5) You have the right to talk with who you want about this, and you can also tell people that you are sad and just need some space. I found that I talked about it a lot with a couple of close friends, shared about it at every meeting I went to and discussed it in therapy. But I didn’t have it in me to talk to everyone. Some people just pissed me off or didn’t “get it.”
(6) Remember that his family’s pain is worse than yours. Writing a letter to them about how much he meant to you, as well as some funny/good stories will be valued more than you can possibly know.
At the service, I told his parents about GRASP (Grief After Substance Passing). Since 2012, I either get a letter, email or phone call from at least one parent of a young person who died from substance abuse each week. The pain a parent experiences when their child dies is indescribable and immeasurable. There are no words or deeds of comfort.
I watched my friends at the service. I watched them look at pictures, talk to each other, cry in their spouses’ arms and try to make sense that this happened. “I keep waiting for him to pop out of the next room and say it was all a joke,” one friend told me. It happened so fast and seems so unreal. I wish I could take away their pain. All I can do is share my experience and be there for them.
We are going to create a scholarship for students in recovery in Pat’s memory. If you want to be a part of that scholarship, you can contact me. If you just want to donate in Pat’s memory, you can mail a check to Rutgers ADAP, c/o Lisa Laitman, 17 Senior Street, New Brunswick, NJ, 08901.