Lessons About Human Nature and Grief From My Work With Chemically Dependent Individuals

I am thankful for the brilliant teachings contained in “The Afterlife of Billy Fingers” by Annie Kagan.  For me, Billy’s teachings are not just about life, death and the afterlife; they are about recognizing that every life has value, regardless of what is seen on the surface. With that being said, I am dedicating this piece to all of the chemically dependent individuals whose stories touched my life during my human services career and helped me to develop rich insights about grief and loss.

The Truth Behind The Cover

There is a tried and tested truth that reads: “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”  Despite the inherent wisdom in that statement, there are many times we choose not to look beyond the cover in certain situations. One of the reasons that I believe this occurs is that our biases clouds our ability to be objective. I believe that we all have biases; to deny them is to deny a rich opportunity to learn from our human experience. Another challenge that causes us to not look beyond the cover of any situation is the fear and uncertainty that accompanies changing our perceptions. For many, change means letting go of the familiar, and that can be challenging. We may prefer to negotiate the familiar, even if it prohibits us from achieving a higher level of thought.

Privilege and Challenges

I had the privilege of working with chemically dependent individuals in the human services field for 27 years.  There are, however, numerous challenges that are inherent to working with this population. There is always the distinct possibility that someone who is chemically dependent will relapse back to using drugs. There are also additional challenges created by home environments characterized by chemical dependency, abuse, difficulties with trust, poor self-esteem, low self-efficacy, mental health issues and generally poor coping skills.  The work with chemically dependent individuals is sometimes complicated by society’s generally negative and largely inaccurate perceptions of them. Their decision to use was inevitably tied to their worth as a human being. If someone was chemically dependent, they were assessed as being a bad person, or not smart enough, or not good enough. Bad choices do not make bad people.  Many of the chemically dependent individuals with whom I worked were among the most intelligent, passionate, creative and heart felt people I have ever encountered. Many also had significant periods of sobriety where they helped others who were experiencing the challenges of chemical dependency, did volunteer work, or just random acts of kindness for others.

They value service to others during their times of sobriety. Their lives are not just about the decisions that they made to dance with chemical dependency; it is about their innate gifts and what they offered to others when they were sober. Their positive impact on society cannot and should not be overlooked. What also tends to get forgotten is that many chemically dependent individuals have also been able to maintain long-term sobriety without relapsing back to drug use. 

Every Single Life is a Gift

As a parent who has experienced the death of a child due to cancer, I have had the privilege of meeting other parents whose children died, several due to chemical dependency. It pains me when their children are perceived as less than because of their dance with addiction.  It is the totality of a life that determines a life, and the gift that is their life that is important. 

“No matter how it seems on the surface, every single life is valuable in ways you cannot imagine or figure out while you are alive. Every single life is a gift.”

The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan

Thankful for The Teachings

With that in mind I want to list the teachings I have gained from having the privilege of working with chemically dependent individuals; their gifts to me:

  • To recognize the inherent strengths and assets of individuals who cross my path.
  • The understanding that labeling is disempowering and hinders personal growth.
  • That there are teachings that can be derived from chemically dependent lifestyles, particularly as it relates to survival and resiliency.
  • The importance of story telling as a healing tool .
  •  That there is another layer of grief due to death that does not at times get expressed. The death of a fellow chemically dependent friend.
  • The importance of being present and listening.
  • That not everybody takes the same path to recovery from chemical dependency.

I have also utilized many of these teachings when companioning individuals who have been affected by loss. In fact, I believe that the path I took in becoming a chemical dependency professional was part of the grand design of my life. It wasn’t a field that I consciously sought out; it, it found me. As a result, I was able to develop skills that I believe have been useful in the present in working with bereaved individuals.  This reminds me of another teaching from “ The Afterlife of Billy Fingers, which is as follows: 

“All roads ultimately

lead to the same place-

the present moment.”



About the Author
I became a parent who experienced the death of a child after my daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. I am a retired addiction professional and am also an adjunct professor in the psychology and psychology-child life departments at Utica College. In 2007, I established Bootsy and Angel Books, LLC(www.bootsyandangel.com). The mission of Bootsy and Angel Books is to provide information, support, and services to individuals and families who have experienced the death of a child or other catastrophic losses. I have presented workshops at national conferences of The Compassionate Friends since 2008 and at gatherings of the Bereaved Parents of the USAin 2009 , 2011 and 2012. I have been a keynote speaker for national gathering of the Bereaved Parents of the USA in both 2011 and 2015. I am also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. I have contributed articles to Living with Loss Magazine ,We Need Not Walk Alone, Hello Grief and Recovering the Self Journal. I have co-authored two books with Linda Findlay of Mourning Discoveries on navigating through grief during the holidays and pet loss. I am a contributing writer for the Open to Hope Foundation and have also appeared on Healing the Grieving Heart and the Open to Hope Television show.. I am also a featured speaker, workshop presenter and coach for Aspire Place(www.aspireplace.com) You can also find me on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/david.j.roberts1
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