NOTE from Elizabeth:
So many of my note-writing friends have expressed a lack of confidence when writing sympathy notes, especially when the death involves a child, suicide, or other challenging circumstances. I am enormously grateful to Patricia Alcamo Choruzy, who bravely shared her perspective on the death of her son from an overdose in this interview by our mutual friend Karen R. Sanderson. All three of us hope it will help you be more compassionate and comforting when you reach out to someone after a particularly difficult loss.
Patti and I have been friends for more than 45 years (though separated by time and distance for much of that). We reconnected via Facebook. Patti lost her son to an overdose in May of 2020. Here she shares personal details and part of Matthew’s story. Patti wants to help others – both those who have suffered with such a loss and those who need guidance for what to say in person, cards, or letters. All of this, with Patti’s permission, is from emails she and I exchanged.
My son Matthew passed away on May 6, 2020, from an overdose. He was 35 years old. He died at home, and I found him. Twenty months later, I still consider it a blessing that I found him. Otherwise, I would live the rest of my life wondering where he was when he died. Was he alone? Was he naked in a ditch somewhere? Was he in his car in a ditch? Was he in a seedy motel room? Who found him? Were they kind or despicable, thinking “oh well, just another junkie.” He was a gentle soul but a loner all his life.
There were so many kids in our neighborhood, but Matt was the youngest of them all, so when school started, he was alone except for me. There were four years between him and Chris [his older brother] so even when there was no school, Matt was not often invited to join in.
He hated school. By the time he was in third grade, we made the decision to hold him back. After years of poor teacher teams—some especially cruel—and referrals, Matt’s doctor put him on Ritalin. Later, he was taken to a psychiatrist who specialized in ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Finally getting extra help, he did better. But having missed so much of the basics early on, school was still a struggle.
When he was around 15 years old, I found out he was smoking weed. I told his doctor, and he stopped writing prescriptions for the Ritalin. Matt quit school five months before graduation. It was a fast train downhill after that.
He was a very funny kid, even into adulthood. He always knew what to do to make me laugh, which was often. But he was a sad, troubled young man. He was depressed. Matt seems to have inherited all the demons. His paternal grandmother was bipolar. One of his aunts on his father’s side was bipolar. His paternal grandfather was an alcoholic, and his father is a recovering alcoholic. His maternal grandfather had a gambling addiction. One of my uncles was an alcoholic.”
What made the overall situation worse was that his death was right in the middle of Covid, so I couldn’t see any of my support people. I couldn’t see my grandchildren, I couldn’t see my best friend, I couldn’t see my girlfriends that I used to have dinner with once a month.
And my husband, Nick, omg Nick. He really takes his vow of “for better or worse” seriously. I can’t even imagine going through this without him.
Christmas of 2020, barely six months after Matthew’s death, I was shopping with my mother. We were looking at Christmas decorations. I commented on how beautiful they were, but I probably wouldn’t decorate. She asked me why not. I said, “Did you just ask me why not?” She said, “Well you just have to move on Patti.” I had no response. My sister-in-law called me often in the beginning. One of those times she actually said, “At least you still have one son left.” Again, I just didn’t know what to say, but these comments did not help at all. Another thing that folks do (and I admit I used to be guilty of this) is to remind me over and over to EAT. NO, I DO NOT WANT TO EAT! I lost 10 pounds in 10 days.
Having said that, however, I really appreciated the food baskets that folks sent. Sometimes the only thing that appealed to me was that luscious pear or that little package of nuts or cookies. That’s what got me through.
Patti Alcamo Choruzy
Please be gentle
Patti is happy to answer thoughtful questions to guide you in knowing what to say (or not to say) in person…or what to write (or not write) in a condolence note to a family who has experienced this kind of tragedy. Feel free to comment below or if you prefer more privacy, join the discussion in our private Facebook group “The Art of the Heartspoken Note.”
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