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Writer Jennie Burke visits Love In The Trenches

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

NOTE: Love In The Trenches (LITT) offers support groups for parents suffering the collateral damage of their child’s addiction and for parents and siblings who have recently lost a family member to the disease of addiction.

Back in May of 2020, when we were all deep in the armpit of Covid and spinning every which way trying to figure out our new normal, Jennie Burke, a non-fiction writer I much admire and follow, suffered a tragic loss that has repeated itself across the nation at an alarmingly accelerated rate. She lost her “terrifically wild and funny” and “crackerjack smart” younger brother Matt to an accidental overdose.

While the pain and the sludging through the days and months are familiar to our support group members, Jennie writes of it so eloquently that I knew she could bring some perspective—could put words to our struggle—in a way that might strike a chord with many of us. That’s the thing about writers. They take our very thoughts and feelings and reorganize them in such a way that the reader recognizes themselves and feels seen.

I first came across Jennie’s work in The Rumpus. Fresh on the heels of her loss, indeed on the very raw, first day after his death, she wrote a deeply touching article about her family’s journey alongside her brother and the way this loss was intertwined with the isolation of COVID-19. I was most struck by her honesty—her anger, the way the illness had fractured her extended family, the way she was forced to mourn in the most counterintuitive of ways (alone) during a pandemic, the way the loss had started many years ago and trickled on until he was, eventually, gone from this world.

Jennie Burke and her brother Matt
Jennie Burke and her brother Matt

I invited Jennie to join us as a guest and to talk about her experience and about how she processes this loss through her writing, how it has changed her relationship to prescription pain meds, how she has vowed to protect her own children as best she can from the legacy of a substance use disorder and how she has become a voice for siblings who have suffered similar pain.

Remembering Matt as more than his disease

I don’t know Matt—or I didn’t—but through Jennie’s beautiful, honest and insightful articles I feel I’ve come to know him. She didn’t set out to introduce me to Matt. She set out to introduce me to her grief. But in doing so she unveiled a picture of a man in such a way that I felt the small weight of my own grief for this man who embodies so many of the losses that families in the trenches of addiction bear.

I know now that Matt was 43 years old, a freckled redhead, terrifically handsome, mischievous, hysterically funny. I know he was a loving father of five who eventually found himself separated from his children—his “reason for living” by a combination of COVID-19 and addiction. I know he was brilliant, a formerly licensed attorney in four states whose licenses lapsed along the course of his addiction journey. Once vibrant and athletic, his body changed shape as opiates took hold of his life. His fun-loving and generous nature morphed into what we in this trench recognize as the inevitable selfishness of addiction.

When a family member is suffering from addiction, what is the right space for siblings?

We often talk about walking the trenches of addiction with our loved ones and we acknowledge that the walk can lead only to death or recovery—and the path itself is strewn with the collateral damage that the family suffers along the way. It’s the metaphor that best expresses the journey for most of us, especially parents. But from a sibling’s perspective, Jennie likened it to a bullseye.

You’re not the substance user, you’re not the parent, you’re not the spouse. They’re in the bullseye, the center of it all, and as a sibling you’re wandering just outside that bullseye. And inside that bullseye, it’s so tight. You’re looking at it from just outside that bullseye and you can see it all so clearly and yet you have to stay out of that very tight space but you keep wandering around outside that bullseye.

Siblings are so often on the periphery of this thing and yet, because they have their own lives to live, because they often have school or family or a life they’re building or stepping into, they can’t afford to be in the center, in the bullseye, of the mess, and what’s more, they have or feel they have, less right to agency and influence over their sibling than does a parent or spouse. If the addicted sibling does, in the end, lose his or her life, the guilt, the helplessness, the regrets (why didn’t I do more, why wasn’t I more present, why didn’t I save him/her) are staggering. These are the unanswerable questions that often come up in our sibling group meetings. With group leader Kate’s guidance we provide a safe and non-judgmental place to process all the painfully confusing reality of our loss.

It was a pleasure having Jennie join us. The collective losses amongst us are overwhelming, but as a writer myself, I recognize the power a writer has to take a tsunami of emotions, sort through them, string them together in words arranged coherently, and gift them back to the reader in a way that speaks to and for us. Jennie Burke is just that kind of writer and I encourage you to follow her on Twitter.

I also recommend some of Jennie Burke's writings about Matt and the omnipresent effect of addiction on her family.

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