The Gift of Presence in the Midst of Grief

attachment to those who suffer deeply

It’s Thursday evening, and I’m laying flowers on my second sponsees grave. He’s been in the ground for 6 years now. Dead at 26, killed by the first batch he used after going “back out.” Fentanyl was just getting mixed into the heroin here, and dealers never got the math right. 

M and I were never close; we just worked differently. Operated on different frequencies. He was angry at everyone, all the time. I never understood that. I tried. I had relinquished my responsibilities as his sponsor two months prior. He had violated too many boundaries. Felt entitled to all my time. He raised his hand to his girlfriend in front of me, I caught his wrist, looked them both in the eyes and said “I’m done with this, with you, with our relationship - there’s no excuse for that,” told his girlfriend I would help her move out if she wanted, and walked out of their apartment.

That was the last time I saw him before having his mother call me in a frantic one night and finding his corpse in a puddle of his own filth with the needle still in his arm - on the floor of his bathroom 40 minutes later. 

That’s how I remember him: by the smell. No-one wants to be remembered that way. But it’s how his story ended, and I’m not going to glam it up. I can’t even say I believed he was a good person, I think he had the potential to be - but even I, someone whose job it was to believe in and equip him, lost sight of that at the end. 

The more my heart breaks from witness, it seems, the more willing I become. Grief has fundamentally changed how I process terror. Serenity, for me, isn’t some peace that surpasses all understanding, nor does it ignore or glance over the suffering all around us. Serenity is the ability to act and address that suffering without it consuming me. It’s not uncommon to hear people in the rooms say, “I’m terrified of going back out - but it’s a healthy fear”; that’s not my experience, at least not anymore. Not sticking a fucking needle in my arm is the default for me, it is the absolute minimum, and by-no-means is any measure of success. So much that when someone asked me how long I had been sober earlier this week, I actually had to think about it, and do the math - 9 years in October. 

I know I can’t drink or use successfully, everything from ages 19-25 points to that. There’s significant, irrefutable, external, and professional evidence. I’ve come to terms with that - I’ve more than made peace with it. I don’t desire it. Don’t miss it. Never enjoyed it in the first place - it was always a means to survive, and then later, a way to kill myself slowly. 

The idea of using or drinking again is just as attractive as going home and drinking a bottle of Drano. I know exactly how it’ll play out - horribly - so I don’t fear it because I know exactly what will happen - and that I’m in complete control of what goes in my body (and my actions). I was always in control, I just didn’t have to skills and discipline to harness that control. 

I didn’t get clean to continue to live in the same cycles of unmetabolized pain, I got clean because I wanted to learn how to live - differently. Once you learn how to live successfully, why would you ever go back to what never worked? Maybe I’m lucky because I did the work, and miracles happened. I know I’ve been incredibly privileged. That doesn’t negate the efforts I’ve made either - I’m still here for a myriad of reasons. They can work in conjunction with each other. It’d be idiotic of me to reject the evidence of grace’s work in my life, but I know that grace only works when we allow it to - when we’ve given it a solid foundation to build off of. I’ve done the work, and I’ve gotten to come home, but there’s still so much to do, more than can ever be done. I know it’s not my job to complete it, but it is mine to continue. 

I know it’s not loving to deny the reality of someone’s suffering, but I’m still learning how to acknowledge that fact, be a balm to their pain while bringing in and shining an uncomfortable light on that suffering. Especially the suffering that’s self-induced. I know we all need to be understood, held, and seen - but part of that holding is being held accountable. I believe there’s a way to do that compassionately, but with urgency.

We inevitably become attached to the recovery of people whose suffering directly affects and impacts our lives. We see it every day. There might even come a year when I fail to put flowers on M’s grave. I’ve buried more people than names I can remember now, and I’m barely in my mid-thirties. There’s a deep sadness to that, I can’t remember everyone who’s passed, simply because there have been too many. 

Perhaps I’m still learning that there is no “fix” or “save” to offer those who suffer deeply. And yet, I have something to offer: personal presence and attention, the kind that invites another’s soul to show up.

Mary Oliver, who I probably quote in every other blog, wrote: “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” Later, she wrote, “Attention is the begging of devotion,” and in her last years: “Attention without feeling … is only a report.

I’m still and forever will be, in the process of embracing what Mary, poetry, and life are teaching us.