Note: This post is about a loss due to overdose.

“He’s in a better place.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You’ll get through this.”
“You won’t be given anything you can’t handle.”
“God has a plan.”
“He’s finally at peace.” 
“Parents should never have to bury their child.”
“There are no words.” 

The grief journey. I’m sure it’s a little different for everyone and that something in the above list resonates with and makes those grieving feel a bit better. At least I hope so. But the truth is, my experience so far is, that when I wake up panicked at 3 a.m., the only two on the list that I hear are the last two. There truly are no words. And the worst thing ever is burying your child – in my case, my only child.

So, when I was invited to offer a blog for Donate Life month, I had my doubts as to whether I was ready to actually come to terms with and write down my feelings, even though I made my living as a writer. After much thought, I feel that what I have to offer is honesty – nothing sugar-coated – and reflections from the perspective of burying a child.  Latest death numbers indicate the stark truth that parents are burying their children at an alarming rate, much of the uptick coming from suicide and substance abuse.

I want you to know a little about my son Gavin, whom we lost March 20, 2021, just shy of his 29th birthday. Just as important, I decided to “ask” Gavin how to get through the grief and loss and sometimes anger and lack of total understanding at his sudden passing. At that 3 a.m. witching hour not long ago, I think I got my answer and maybe even permission to move forward. Was it actually from Gavin? I don’t know. It’s somewhat comforting to think so. But I did know my child and I truly could hear him say this: “I want you and dad to keep living.”

A little about Gavin. He was a delightful child, a real joy to his father and me, especially after trying for eight years to get pregnant. He had a textbook, amazing childhood surrounded by a small but very loving family. Lots of vacations like Aruba and Jamaica and Alaska, Boy Scouts, Space Camp with dad, guitar lessons, junior black belt in Taekwondo.  He started running with a party crowd in high school and we had our moments – several car accidents, substance issues, a couple bad girlfriend choices, counselors. He was a hard worker and held a lot of different part-time jobs, most in the restaurant industry. If he was granted an interview, he got the job.

Gavin, with all his challenges, had a conscience. He had remorse. He knew right from wrong. He was such a kind soul, never hurting anyone on purpose. He championed anyone bullied in school and could have a meaningful conversation with a CEO, a homeless person and everyone in between.  He was kind and witty and smart and well read.

In November 2016, he was in a near-fatal auto accident. In fact, we were told he was near death or technically dead twice – once while being cut out of the car and the other in the medical helicopter. Substances did not play a role in this accident. Against the odds, he survived after 14 days on life support, three crushed limbs and a myriad of life-threatening internal injuries. Because of the gravity of the injuries, he was prescribed opioid-based painkillers. I questioned it at the time because of his past, but I was told, and I’m sure rightly so, that someone in his level of agony would not heal and this treatment was not optional. I was also told he would be taken off them carefully when the time was right. After more than half a year on these prescriptions, the time came to wean him off. I don’t blame the trauma team at all. But it was clear that his brain had been rewired and there was going to be no way any weaning would work. After a few months he bought heroin off the street and spiraled quickly, but soon self-admitted to a treatment hospital and was the poster child for their program. 

The long story short is that Gavin was mostly substance free for nearly three years, got engaged to a delightful young lady who called us mom and dad, set a wedding date, got a promotion at work, was compliant in a suboxone program and took his fiancé on a real vacation to the Smoky Mountains. The four of us were regularly spending time together, going out to dinner and enjoying each other and his new-found happiness. His dad and I started taking a deep breath again. 

March 18, 2021, his fiancé came home and found him on the floor not breathing. Medics got his heart started after at least 20 minutes—no one knows for sure just how long he was down. I witnessed 12 minutes without a pulse, so I knew he was gone. But the silver lining of the actions of the EMTs is that Gavin was able to be an organ donor, something he was adamant about after recovering from his 2016 wreck. He was able to donate his lungs and both kidneys to three men. The Indiana Donor Network staff was professional and compassionate and there for us on our worst days. He passed away March 20. At first, I did not feel as much comfort as I thought I would, but our loss was so raw. Now my husband and I volunteer once a month in the office, alongside both recipient and donor families. Gavin would like that.

If you’ve lost someone close to you, who was part of your daily routine and now gone, there’s certainly that proverbial hole in your heart. I grieve for the loss my husband and I feel every day. Lately, though, my grief has taken a slightly different direction. Oh, I feel sorry for myself that my husband is 14 years older than me and that now, without Gavin, I may have to figure out what my final years will look like alone. I “jokingly” tell my girlfriends I hope they will text me every day if I find myself alone so that my fear of being a “foul odor call” doesn’t come to fruition. I think about the day I order an alert necklace. I grieve for my husband having to even think about all this and blaming himself because he’s older. We’ve been together almost 40 years and our age difference never mattered until we lost Gavin. Now we are even contemplating moving from our home of 30 years to get me settled in an area that’s more of a community. 

The slightly different direction of my grief is now more about what I grieve for Gavin and all the things he will never experience. It used to be that I won’t be a grandma or a cool mother-in-law. Lately, it’s really about that he won’t be a husband or a father. It’s also the things I see on TV that he’s missing. For example, he would have loved to watch William Shatner blast into space for 20 minutes. The son of two journalists, he would be troubled about so much that’s in the news and want to call and talk about it. He loved texting me first with a news flash. He loved his three rescue cats and was the best cat dad ever. 

So, my grief journey almost a year later is predominantly my being sad about all that Gavin is missing. And that’s why I think I was ready to entertain the thought that his dad and I need to keep living and enjoy what time we have left together and not feel guilty about having a good day. I remember about 60 days after Gavin’s death something made me laugh out loud and I was absolutely shaken to my core that I laughed, total guilt because I thought I had no right to do that. I thought I should never feel enjoyment ever again.

His death from relapse, which we will never fully understand, was not intentional but yet by his own hand. He lost a friend that way. He was so angry and kept saying, “He knew better. How did he let this happen? He’s got to be so mad at himself. Oh, his poor parents.” We found ourselves saying the same things, just this time it was about our son.

And that’s why I’m convinced Gavin would want us to keep on living, to not feel any guilt on a good day or waste another day grieving for him. Will I ever wake up and not think about Gavin? Nope. Do I still have 3 a.m. moments of anxiety and loss? Sure do. But every day is a new day and his father and I now believe we are honoring him by living our best days. We know he’d want us to.

About the Author
Julie Vincent is a volunteer advocate for the Indiana Donor Network, after losing her son and only child, Gavin, March 20, 2021. She is a retired corporate public relations professional and IUPUI lecturer, who still consults and does freelance writing. Her areas of concentration include crisis communications and crisis preparedness and has consulted with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security on many issues. She is also a graduate of the FBI Citizens Academy. She was accepted into the Public Relations Society of America College of Fellows and is a published author and award-winning corporate communicator. She and her husband David live in Indianapolis.