‘The hardest thing in the world a mother can go through’: surviving the holidays after loss


When Arlene Coates decorates her home for the holidays, there’s one thing she never forgets.

“This is one of the Christmas bulbs my son made, and I’ve carried it all these years,” she says, holding it in her hand. “It’s been on all the Christmas trees that I’ve ever had.”

But her son, David Clark, won’t be with her this year. After battling drug addiction for 20 years, he died from a heroin overdose in October, at 44 years old. Just weeks before, he had returned to his parents’ home after a 30-day rehab program, clean and sober for the first time in a long time.

Remembering those good times makes his death that much harder to bear for Arlene.

“I read one of his texts after he died, and it said, ‘I’m so excited because I’ll be able, for the first time in years, [to] buy myself a new pair of shoes and some clothes that are new,’” she said. “But he never got to do that – because it was only a couple of weeks later that I got the call, and he was gone.”

“It’s the hardest thing in the world, I think, a mother can go through.”

Now, Arlene has to get through the holidays without him – a joyous season for most, but a sorrowful one for her, and others, going through loss.

“Such a wonderful feeling in the air – lights everywhere, music, people supposed to be in very good moods. It can be stressful,” said Cathy Campbell, who works with bereavement services at Hospice of Washington County.

“I try to think of the good times, like when he was little,” Arlene explains. “Of course, this is our first Christmas without my son – so, you know, I’m just not there yet. I don’t know how I’ll be.”

Campbell said it’s important to communicate with family and friends, because everyone grieves in different ways.

“We feel like we have to put on a mask, like other people need us to be okay,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to realize – we want you to acknowledge your pain.”

Just inside of the front door at Hospice is a place where anyone can come to recognize that grief, in a positive way. On the “Tree of Remembrance,” people grieving a loved one can come in, fill out a personalized ornament in honor of them, hang it on the tree and take home a butterfly, which says “it’s proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness, yet become something beautiful.”

In Arlene’s own home, she has a similar tree – hanging behind it are pictures of David, and her husband’s brother, who also died after an overdose. On the other side are her two stepchildren – one in recovery from drugs, while the other isn’t there just yet.

“We pray for them,” Arlene said, “and we remember them.”

Bereavement services at Hospice of Washington County are open to anyone in the community, regardless of the situation. They offer day and evening support groups, individual and family counseling, as well as educational workshops on how to cope with losing a loved one.

Campbell adds that counseling sessions can take place in any setting where the individual or family is most comfortable.

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