Breaking Through the Isolation of Grief
An Interview with Robyn Houston-Bean, Founder, The Sun Will Rise Foundation
By Val Walker
Robyn Houston-Bean lives in Braintree, MA, and manages an insurance agency for four days a week. She is married to John Bean, a sheet metal worker, and has a daughter, Olivia, age 25, and a son, Jake, age 21. Amazingly, around her demanding business and the needs of her family, Robyn runs a dynamic, fast-growing organization, The Sun Will Rise, dedicated to serving families affected by the Opioid epidemic.
Three years ago, Robyn’s oldest son, Nick, died of an opioid overdose. Just one year after his death, finding a way to channel her grief, Robyn began building her foundation in honor of her son, and soon engaged hundreds of families with support groups, inspirational talks, and fundraising events.
I wanted to understand how Robyn was able to express her grief through community activism, and more deeply, to explore how she found comfort, understanding and support for her grief.
One grey morning in February, I enjoyed a rich, two-hour interview with Robyn. Her candid insights about how grief isolated her, and what it took to break through isolation and turn to others was a powerful story in itself. She didn’t hold back from “going there” to describe her first devasting weeks after Nick’s death. Her story is so compelling and important that I have written her interview in two parts. Part One is about how she broke out of the isolation of her grief. Part Two is about her healing adventure of developing her foundation, The Sun Will Rise.
Right at the beginning of my conversation, Robyn made one thing quite clear: We don’t ever “get over” nor completely recover from our child’s death, but hopefully, we learn to live with loss—and if possible, find a sense of purpose to guide our grief. For Robyn and many who support her work, community activism for facing the opioid epidemic has given devasted people a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.
Part One: Breaking Through the Isolation of Grief
Robyn didn’t hold back from “going there” to describe her first devasting weeks after Nick’s death.
Val: Can you describe the early stages of your grief—starting at the point you think it’s best to start?
Robyn: First, I should tell you about the night before he died. I’ll never forget the night before Nick overdosed. Strangely, out of the blue, before Nick came home from work, my daughter, Olivia, said, “I have a bad feeling about him.” As soon as he got home, he walked straight to the fridge. When Nick put his face into the fridge I made him look at me because of my daughter’s feeling that something didn't seem right. I put both my hands on the sides of his face to make him look at me.
I asked, "Are you okay?" He told me, "I'm just tired-- I'm going to bed, why?" I answered, "Because I love you, and don't want anything to happen to you.”
He replied, "I love you too. I'm tired and going to bed. I have to be up for an early shift." It still haunts me that I didn't know something horrible was going to happen that night.
The next morning as I was headed out to the gym for my usual workout, I was surprised to see Nick’s car in the driveway, as he usually drove to work on the early shift. I wondered, why was Nick’s car still there? I called upstairs towards his room, “Hey Nick, are you up there?” It seemed so weird he was not answering as he was such an early morning kind of guy. I went to his room and found him lying motionless in his bed, cold and blue. I tried to revive him with Narcan but I could tell it was too late. I screamed a horrible, guttural sound—a sound I have never made in my life. Still, my daughter called 911. The EMT and police came and took him to the hospital, but he was gone.
Val: What a horrible shock—to be the one to find him dead right at home. Before his death, had there been any signs that you sensed Nick was using again or hiding anything?
Robyn: Not really. It was such a shock, and there really are no words to describe this kind of shock. He was doing so well and so proud of his new job as an Emergency Services Technician. He had just finished his certification and was feeling a real sense of purpose and mission in his life. He told me almost every day how he loved his work, and loved being so helpful for others, saving lives. But…perhaps, he saw too many awful things during emergencies and rescues, and maybe some things had triggered him. I will never really know.
Val: What were those first weeks or months like for you?
Robyn: Everything just stopped. I just stopped. All I could do was sit on the couch. I had always been a super-energetic person who loved fitness competitions and worked hard to be the best at anything I wanted to do. I was once the unstoppable, super-achieving woman who never looked back.
But when Nick died, I didn’t know how to be me anymore.
Unfortunately, my husband and youngest son didn’t know how to relate to this person I had become—this woman who just stopped everything. And my friends tried to text me and chat to cheer me up. But I couldn’t do chit chat anymore. My daughter could understand somewhat, but she was my daughter and was grieving in her own way. For me to grieve, I needed to have some of Nick’s things around me on the counter by the kitchen—his little harmonica, his coin collection, little pins he wore, his pocket knives, but this bothered my husband to the degree that this caused arguments. He didn’t want to talk about the death of our son or look at Nick’s stuff because he just wanted to push the memories away to get through the day. I was the total opposite from him in how I grieved. There was an awful tension between us. I felt lonely with my grief because no one in my family could understand how I was grieving as a mother. And I was anxious that my friends were trying to fix me and get me to socialize or get back to the gym. No one seemed to accept that the person I was before Nick’s death—that once unstoppable Robyn-- no longer existed.
Val: It sounds so isolating for you. No one in your family is the right person to talk to, and your friends don’t seem to understand how to relate anymore, even though they are trying. What in the world did you do?
Robyn: I had a gut feeling that a grief counselor might help me. For a referral, I asked a pediatrician I liked for years (who had treated my kids when they were younger.) He gave me the name of an excellent therapist, and fortunately I felt comfortable with her. I opened up and shared everything with her. I was especially concerned about how to cope with my husband and children who weren’t grieving in the ways I was. A few weeks later, I asked my husband and kids to join for family therapy. They weren’t too thrilled about it, but they cared enough to go for a few sessions. I was relieved this therapy resulted in finding a solution about how I could have Nick’s things around me without this upsetting my husband. We decided to put Nick’s little things in a box on the counter, so when I wanted to connect with Nick I could just get his things out of the box and then put them away. Believe it or not, this simple solution made a huge difference for me and my husband!
Val: Wow. I love what you just said. And what a perfect solution to use the box for Nick’s things.
Robyn: Eventually my daughter, Olivia, started going into the box, getting out his harmonica and coin collection, and sharing memories about Nick with me. But still…I had a long way to go to get used to my new normal without Nick in my life. Indeed, we all had new normals without Nick in our lives.
But one day a thoughtful friend connected me on Facebook with a friend of his named Carole who had recently lost her child to an overdose. Very soon we were talking on the phone. We could “go there” with the horrible things that no one else could talk about. For our first face-to-face meeting, Carole met me at the cemetery where both of our kids were buried. Can you believe it—both of our kids were in the same cemetery lying near each other! We sat on the grass and cried together. We made a pact with each other that we would “take care of our kids” every day by going to the cemetery every day. We agreed that no one could rob us of our grief and the time we needed to “take care of our kids.”
Soon another friend connected me to other grieving parents through Facebook. In a few months we found out about an organization called Hand Delivered Hope, a group of concerned citizens affected by the opioid epidemic. This group provided street outreach to people who have been impacted, meeting their basic needs so that recovery was possible. Hand Delivered Hope had organized a benefit event where participants were bringing bags of comfort items. My sister and I attended this event, and to my surprise, I made friends easily with other parents and family members who had lost loved ones or had loved ones still struggling. I didn’t feel judged or that I had to censor myself from talking about messy and awful topics related to addiction. They busted through the stigma of addiction as I was accepted and welcomed. They asked about Nick, and how I was coping with my grief. They shared their own stories about broken relationships and how their kids were destitute, misguided, broken, or had died through an overdose. It was a safe place to talk honestly as a group, and I immediately realized how healing it was to have this open, warm environment where I could be a grieving mother—rather than trying to be that unstoppable, super-achiever person I used to be. This experience of feeling so welcome with my grief was a big turning point for me.
I had a huge revelation, and it all came down to this: My child was not here anymore, but I could help someone else’s child. And I could help someone else who was grieving to feel warmth and acceptance. Braintree needed more support groups, fundraising events, educational events, and resource development. Soon after my revelation, one thing led to another. I met another wonderful friend named Rhonda who was involved with a grief support group at GRASP in Brighton. She told me there was no grief support group on the south shore of Massachusetts. And things started moving from there—it was my calling. I believed I was the one to do this.
Val: Thankfully, you found a group where you didn’t have to hide your grief, and that inspired you to start your own support groups. What about your older friends? Did they fade away? Or were you able to maintain those friendships alongside the new friends you were making?
Robyn: Yes, I have been able to keep most of my old friends. I finally managed to figure out how I can fit my old and new friends in my life. First of all, these two groups of friends are two separate groups. I call my old friends my “before” friends (before Nick’s death) and my new friends my “after” friends. The “after” friends definitely “get me” more easily and I can talk about the good, the bad and ugly stuff with them. However, I truly love my old friends and I tend to do more fun and lively stuff with them—which is just fine for short periods. I don’t want to be a “downer” with my “before” friends. My “before” friends still want to see me laugh and socialize, and I’m able to do that on some occasions. I must admit they can still make me laugh. I am glad to have both groups in my life. But I couldn’t live without my “after” friends.
Val: Robyn, what a creative way to make room for all your friends in your life. That also sounds like a beautiful way to embrace your “before” self with your “after” self.
Robyn: Thank you for saying that. It’s all taken a long time.
This concludes Part One of my conversation with Robyn. In my next post on the Health Story Collaborative, Robyn will share her healing journey with developing The Sun Will Rise Foundation.
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