Through Grief, Remember to ‘Bear Down’


Substance abuse crosses all boundaries of class, race, geography and age.  Our families and communities are struggling with the pain of addiction, day-in-and-day-out. It is not a new problem.  But, the awful landscape of addiction is an evolving situation that changes almost daily.

In the past, families, parents, siblings, partners and spouses affected by addiction, and those they love – followed a painfully familiar river, with an undulating rhythm of lying, confusion, family fights, car accidents, rehab, petty crime, more lying and broken promises. I know this because I am one of those parents. I have lost a child to the horror of the opioid crisis. I learned about the rhythm of addiction as the parent, of a son, who fought substance abuse and ultimately died from an heroin overdose.

Today’s drug abuse problem is relentless. Unfortunately there is no end in sight.  As a UU minister, I’ve memorialized the 20-something-year-old children of congregants.  I’ve counseled and consoled middle-aged adults who were partnered, raising children and building families – but are now single parents because a spouse has OD’d.  I try to offer them solace and a space filled with understanding, recognition and hope.

In 2016 more than 64,000 people lost their lives to the opioid/fentanyl epidemic that is destroying families all over the US (The First Count of Fentanyl Deaths in 2016: Up 540% in Three Years – NYT 9/2/2017).

One of those lives was my son’s.

Taj Michael Cissel died of a heroin overdose the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, in November 2016.  His addiction pulled my family into murky waters we had no idea how to navigate.  In the years before he died, it was as if we (my children, and Taj’s few friends) were standing on a cold, rock strewn shore, watching him helplessly tread water.  Watching him sink and resurface again and again… until the undertow caught him and kept him beneath the cold, grey sea for good.

I made it through the days, weeks and months after he died by gathering strength from within and without. I read and listened to the voices of different individuals who have been touch by substance abuse. I spoke with a professional counselor and shared my pain with others in a grief group. I let people in, instead of pushing them away. All of these things helped me to realize I was not swimming alone in the icy troubled waters of loss and despair.

I also remembered to “bear down.”

There is a saying used widely among baseball coaches on T-ball fields and the glittering diamonds of the Major Leagues: “bear down”. It’s never yelled across the infield or screamed at the top of one’s lungs like “run!” Or, “slide!”  No. It is whispered. Like a prayer. When the count is full at 3-2.  When sweat is running down the side of a pitcher’s face.  When everyone knows that another meeting on the mound (a tiny gathering that the umpire jogs out to break up), or shaken-off signal from the catcher or cheer from the crowd — will not make a damn bit of difference.

A good coach tells his pitcher to “bear down” when all that matters is this: the next pitch must be a strike.  Period.  A good coach telegraphs this message to the pitcher he has cajoled, cursed, screamed at, sweet-talked, praised and schooled in the nature of fastballs, change-up pitches, sliders and curve balls.  A good coach sees clearly when the entire game has been fiercely narrowed down to a duel between the pitcher and the batter.  A good coach whispers “Bear Down” to the baseball Gods and to himself… and to that person on the mound, who must throw a strike and close the inning, to end, and win, the game. “Bear down”

After my son’s death, friends, family and my counselor coached and held me. These good  people gave me strength. “Bear down” became my mantra the winter after Taj died …. and I had to fight through the surety that I had failed him. That it was my fault heroin had won. That my child, my oldest son was gone.  They coached me through that winter of 2016-2017, and I whispered “bear down” …when nothing else made sense.  When I woke up night after night crying.  When I was fearful because my broken youngest son was struggling with alcohol abuse half-way across the country.

Letting people in. Telling my story of love, anger and loss, again and again, helped me heal. My healing began when I looked death and drug abuse straight in the eye, shared my despair deeply with others and let them support me. I began to heal by letting others care for me too. That winter and in the days that followed, I was loved and coached.

I gathered strength from others when my own strength failed.

“Bear down” I murmured and prayed.  “Carol. Bear down.”

Rev. Carol Thomas Cissel, (M.S., M.Div.), is the settled minister of the UU Fellowship of Centre County in State College, PA. She is passionate about homiletics, crafting exuberant worship, travel, and small batch bourbon. This column is coordinated by whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This article first appeared in the Centre Daily Times on Sunday, June 23, 2019.