A Sense of Purpose: Turning Grief into Action
Another Conversation with Robyn Houston-Bean, Founder and Director, The Sun Will Rise Foundation
By Val Walker
In our first interview, Robyn shared how the support from her grief counselor, her friends, and her support group had all helped to hold her through her darkest months after her son’s overdose.
Nearly a year after his death, she discovered that community action was her path to healing, and started her own support group in Braintree, MA. Soon she launched The Sun Will Rise Foundation. Her insights about how support groups and community service can empower us after a tragedy sparked a whole new conversation.
Val: Can you describe what gave you a sense of purpose a few months after Nick’s death?
Robyn: After a few months of grieving, I attended an event with a group called Hand Delivered Hope that does street outreach for those living with active addiction and who call the streets home. Joining in with other families and feeling so welcomed and accepted, it suddenly struck me that I had a sense of purpose: My child was not here anymore, but I could help another child. Although my Nick wasn’t here, someone else’s child needed my love and support. This warm, friendly group and others, such as Let It Out and The Boston Grief Group, inspired me and gave me strength to start my own group in Braintree. I knew we needed a grief support group closer to where I lived because I finally realized the scope of all this grief out there in the world. It’s so important that support groups are convenient for local people to meet and come together easily. We need people to understand us and validate our feelings, so we don’t have to make excuses for our tears and our laughter.
Val: I would love to learn more about how helping others is healing for you.
Robyn: To put it simply, helping others helps me. I know that if I didn’t go down the path of helping others, I would be at a different place with my grief. Helping others forces me to step out of my own pain and hear and feel the grief of others. The group members are so appreciative to have a place to put their grief. Nick was so compassionate and caring, and each time someone is helped with our group, I know he is smiling down on me.
Val: It amazes me that you went straight to the Braintree Town Hall to ask about starting a support group. How did this happen?
Robyn: I knew a person who worked for the mayor, so I floated the idea of having a group at the town hall. Right away that person thought it was a great thing for our town to do. What a perfect way to say “no” to the stigma about the opioid crisis by having this group right at the Braintree Town Hall! After the group was going for a while, we had our first fundraiser for the foundation right there at the town hall. We have been lucky because not all communities have embraced the idea that substance use disorder can happen to anyone, and that we all need to work together to help prevent it.
Val: What was it like learning to be a group facilitator?
Robyn: I doubted myself very much at the beginning, but I received such great support from some of the facilitators. My doubts were erased very quickly. Figuring out the logistics, learning about facilitating, getting the word out so people in grief could find a tribe—all this kept my mind busy and kept me going in the early days.
Val: How is having a purpose contagious with other families affected by the opioid epidemic?
Robyn: I'm amazed how powerful it can be when people who are usually on the margins are given a voice. Grieving is hard enough, but on top of that, it’s a stigmatizing death, and it can cause people to focus inward and avoid dealing with day to day life. It can cause grievers to be left alone in their grief by friends and a community that doesn't know how to deal with loss. Being part of our community, a place where people are safe to explore their feelings no matter what, a place where we can share anger, confusion, sadness, hopelessness, guilt and not be judged is a powerful thing. Having someone there to say, "Me too, I've felt that way" can really make a huge difference in our lives. Once you know you aren't alone, that there are hundreds of people out there who have felt your pain and have survived-- not only survived but lived again after loss--can be an incredibly healing realization.
Here are some ways that support groups have helped to turn grief into action:
People build new friendships.
They advocate for change in their own towns.
They work to change laws.
They gather together in prevention activities.
They support the newest members of the group.
They find their voice again.
I'm so glad the people who led the path before me gave me my voice, and that I have played some small part to help others find theirs.
Val: Robyn, you have been so generous with your passion and wisdom. Thanks so very much for all you have done.
Robyn: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk with the Health Story Collaborative.
Robyn’s Foundation, The Sun Will Rise
Team Sharing Inc., a national organization of parents who have lost children
GRASP: Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing
The Opioid Project, created by Annie Brewster, MD, and artist, Nancy Marks
Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.
Keep up with Val at www.HearteningResources.com