Prepare for a podcast episode that may well be the most profound and impactful from Voices InCourage.
Whether you’ve grappled with the loss of a child to addiction or are simply a concerned parent navigating your child’s substance use, this episode is for you.
Jim Horton‘s courageous vulnerability touches the core of every parent as he shares his insights on handling the holidays after losing his son, Zach, to addiction.
Jim shares that a grieving person needs to hear that they are exactly where they need to be right now. Jim also acknowledges the different paths that he and his wife have taken in coping with their loss, and how common that is in marriages that suffer the loss of a child.
Jim’s comfort and care are what grieving parents need who are seeking guidance for the upcoming holidays. This is a must-listen!
Watch the episode here
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Jim Horton’s Holiday Advice For Grieving Parents
I am thrilled to have Jim Horton back with us. This is the third time that we’ve talked. What I would say about Jim is there’s a connection that I have with him that is so genuine. He’s just so present in his experience of his journey with addiction on his son being addicted and then subsequently his son passing away. He and his wife set up the Zachary Horton Foundation, which he is very involved with to this day. There’s an evolution to Jim’s journey and I’m very pleased and honored to be on that evolution with him. We were introduced by a mutual friend of ours out of Louisiana, Meredith Eicher, who we both love and adore. Shout out to her for a brilliant connection here.
I was talking to Jim and we’re headed into the holiday season from Halloween through even the Super Bowl weekend. It’s a peak time of year for people to navigate addiction and for families and loved ones to figure out, “How do I do this in a way that I can figure out how to be with my addict or my alcoholic, love them through it, and yet honor me in the process of creating the holidays that I most want to create?” I wanted to talk to Jim about it. I want to thank you Jim for joining me to have this conversation.
KL, always it’s such a pleasure to share any time with you. Let me start by saying I appreciate the words that you had for me that described what my journey has been like. Occasionally, I’ll get feedback from people and they’ll tell me, “Jim, from where you were a couple of years ago, it’s just tremendous what we see.” I best say that is so valuable for me to hear because when you live in my skin, I don’t see those. I don’t see that progress. A lot of times, in any walk of life, we view ourselves, unfortunately, only by our lowest points.
I remember in college reading a book by Powell. That was decades ago. I remember him saying in one of the books that we judge our weaknesses against somebody else’s strengths and very seldom do we judge our strengths adequately. If I have a strength, I just judge that as something I’m very successful at but anybody could do that. I don’t have any problem talking in front of people. The reality is I know that that’s difficult for some people to do.
When I get that feedback, it is so important for me to hear that and now I get to judge myself through somebody else’s eyes. I would recommend to everybody out there that if you know someone who’s lost someone or who’s gone through a tough time and you see some growth in them, they need to hear that. That’s the stuff that they need here. Don’t just assume, “So-and-so is doing great.” No, they really need to do that. That’s a reality check that can be very valuable for them.
Having other people’s perspectives is super important and as you said, we’re in our skin. Those of us who are maybe paying a little bit more attention to our evolution, great. For the most part, and certainly in this circumstance where you have lost a child, that takes you to depths of emotions that most of us don’t experience. There’s a reality about your experience that I have not experienced. I do not want to find myself in that position where I talk to you and I have an experience with you, and I think, “You’ve got it made.”
I know, at least on my side of the aisle, relative to my own experience it is a journey, an evolution. It doesn’t always look this put together. There are ugly days or moments still. People judge themselves, they could look at you and say, “Look how good Jim’s doing and I’m not doing as well as he is.” My first response is to never judge yourself against somebody else because you have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes of that person’s life. Take the pieces that help you elevate to that next version of yourself that you are inspired to live into.
The reason to have this conversation is because it’s been a few years since Zach’s passing. This year isn’t going to look like it did last year or the year before. I would love to hear the evolution of this journey for you because I do believe that people need to hear the evolution of the journey to know that is what is the road and the path that they’re on.
I’m going to speak of things in terms of my grief journey and what the holidays look like through there. It’s pretty common in the first year of a grief experience, especially after losing a child. It doesn’t have to just be a child. It could be losing a close pet, a parent, a friend, or a spouse. These things hit us all differently. I know from losing all of those things, parents, pets, and best friends, I can speak to the severity of losing a child and how much greater that is, even beyond that.
They say that the first year is when you’re just numb. You’re about eighteen months into the process before you even begin to process things even close to how you used to process them. People would be wise to see that if someone has lost someone a few months ago, and now we’re coming up on the holidays and they have a tradition of doing X, Y, Z, why don’t they want to do that? Why aren’t they around? They’re just numb. They may show up and break down halfway through it.
The truth is that once you lose a child, especially I am, there are some similarities to how I used to be, KL, but I am a new person. I have been reborn. Frankly, I don’t even know what that’s like yet. I’m just now beginning to figure it out because I’m a few years into this process. That first year, I was numb with everything that happened.
They call the second year the year of the first. It’s the first time that you experience their birthday, or Christmas without them. There’s this year of first that we get to experience and we get to see what it’s like. There are a lot of very well-meaning people that want to tell you how you should feel, and that your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad or that they’re in a better place. All of those things, while they may be true, bring zero comfort. Sometimes it raises anxiety and an unimaginable frustration.
The best thing that a grieving person can hear is that they’re exactly where they need to be right now. That’s all that they have. Now, here’s the challenge. As my wife and I are experiencing this together, we are in completely different grief journeys. I attacked or approached my grieving by staying as busy as I possibly could be, by excessive exercise, by creating a foundation that now I spend 40 to 50 hours, oftentimes even more than that every week. I volunteered and just poured myself into it. I want to talk about Zach as much as I can to everyone that I can, that wasn’t her journey.
That first year for us, we were opposed in how we approach things. That created a challenge for us. Now, as I read books and I understood that that was normal, then I was able to accept that. Oftentimes, there’s a statistic that’s raised with couples that lose a child. There’s a high divorce rate among that. If that is accurate, I would attribute that to the fact that oftentimes, if people aren’t getting counseling or they don’t have an opportunity to experience their grief, they hold that inside, they’re on different paths, and there’s no discussion about that, again, they’re different people. There’s going to be a separation either inside or just the disillusionment of the marriage. I could see that happening very easily. That process doesn’t surprise me.
Jim, part of it is that we are so ill-equipped to handle grief period that when something this traumatic happens, we make up all these stories about how people should be grieving. If they’re not grieving that way, then they must not be missing them that much. There are all these stories that we make up. The truth is, we all do grief differently. There are the big buckets of grief in terms of the things that are present for grief. Our experience of it in our skin is our errors uniquely.
There are a couple of things there. As a friend, for somebody who’s grieving, is just to be present with grace and love. Leave the judgment, the ideas, or whatever you think should be at the door if you truly care about somebody. The flip side of that is it causes us as loved ones to deal with our stuff around grief. When somebody that we know and love is in deep grief, and we haven’t done our work, we have no idea how to show up for them, how to do this thing, and so forth. What’s happening there is learning how to grieve and how to allow with grace and love others to grieve.
That’s it exactly. Since the holidays are such a family-oriented sensitive time, there are so many rituals around the holidays that we have. It gives even more opportunity for us to either practice supporting someone in a good way or if we don’t understand or don’t know, making it miserable for them. Zach was nineteen when he passed. Every birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and 4th of July, were all opportunities for me to go up in the attic and bring down tubs of decorations. My wife would decorate the house to the nines every single holiday. That was her love expression to Zach and our family about how we got to celebrate.
On Thanksgiving, because we didn’t have family around, oftentimes, we would either visit family or we would have friends that would come over and we would create an extended family again with all of our decorations and give Zach that experience. Now we remove Zach from this ritual. All the pictures we have of Zach are around his birthday, around Christmas, and around some festivity that always thinks about a holiday. It all changed. My wife’s way of dealing with it was, “We will never decorate again.” Again, that’s what you believe at the first.
For the first two years, we didn’t have a single decoration in the house. Since we live in a neighborhood and we want to be part of a community, I still hung Christmas lights outside with no yard art but for Halloween and Christmas, I still hung lights and did some decorations because we have kids that live around us. I don’t want them to be punished or have less of an experience. Once you entered our house, there was just nothing.
That’s how we dealt with it then. In 2023, we’re talking about maybe visiting some family. In 2022, we had a couple of items that we placed in the house. Still, we haven’t had a tree. We used to have two trees. We had a tree in two different rooms. I suspect that now we’re able to start to build and maybe grow a little bit. I don’t expect that our celebrations will ever be the same, but I believe that we may be able to watch a holiday show on TV without it being devastating for us.
Now let me reflect too, what it has been like. In our second year, we did go to some family for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is one of those ritualistic times when extended family comes over and we share all that. There’s Lynn and I without a son and everybody else has their family with them. Everyone else is talking about the growth of their children, how wonderful the school year is, and the sports that they’re participating in. That’s what we celebrate, at times like that with our family. That is still very raw and tough for us.
We want to celebrate that with the people we love. Sometimes it’s just so hard that we can’t, and we don’t know how it’s going to affect us. I can’t just make up my mind that it’s not going to bother me now. That’s not possible. That’s still something that we deal with. I’m telling you early on, it is very evident. As someone supporting someone like myself or another family member, just understanding and realizing Aunt Joan is crying a lot is because she’s missing her children.
Letting them know that, “If you need some time alone here, the bedroom is a safe place for you to go.” Not demanding, “It’s been 3 or 4 years. Don’t you think you should be moving on now?” All I can think about is just a high rate of expletives that just want to flow. People always mean their best. It’s one of those things until you’ve experienced it, you don’t. That’s what I understand now, even my experience of the loss of a child is different than someone else’s. I no longer expect them to have a similar experience that I have.
Did you and your family going into, let’s just say, Thanksgiving, have some conversation about how this experience might be for you or even for them?
I was not far enough along in my journey to even be able to express that or understand it. I wasn’t thinking in those terms yet. That’s something that I could do now. My son’s addiction journey, I know more now than I ever wanted to. I read everything I get my hands on and it’s the same thing about my grief journey. Working with my wife, I continue to co-facilitate a grief group. 4 or 5 times a year we get a brand new group of freshly mourning parents who have lost a child that we get to go through. It’s at those times that I can see how far I’ve grown. I don’t see it on myself, but I can reflect and I can see them and I feel their pain. I know where they’re at. It is so devastating.
I hope through my being there, because now I see where I am. I know that every day is not ten hours of that trauma. It may just be a brief moment. Sometimes now I have complete days where I don’t feel any of that severe grief. There’s just mild sadness. I can go 2 or 3 days now, sometimes if I’m involved in something else, and I don’t have that depth. I will always be sad. I will always miss Zach. I will always love him but I see a progression of change. It’s been a few years now and it’s probably only been the last couple of months that I’ve felt like this. That’s a long time to live in despair or not knowing that things could ever be different.
Being in this group has helped me to understand that to be able to be present for somebody else. Hopefully, they get to see that in me. I’m told that one of the main purposes for me being there is for them to get to hear me share. There are times that I am right next to them feeling exactly how they feel for that day. There are times that they get to see that I’ve progressed and that effect can bring them a picture of a little hope or that their journey is not always going to look exactly the way that it looks now. I’m telling you, for the first 2 to 3 years, that’s exactly how it felt.
It’s never going to change. I would imagine that’s what gets people stuck in the never-ending cycle of the devastation of this.
I said all the time through my two and a half years that joy is absent. The thought of ever feeling joy or happiness is not even in the landscape. It’s gone. Again, when I say that I’ve been reborn and that I’m a different person now, things that I enjoyed before like golf, it was my passion. I played a lot. I played in tournaments all the time. It was one of those things that I couldn’t imagine ever not doing. My picture of retirement was going to be going to the club every day, doing a small workout, playing eighteen holes of golf, coming in, having happy hour with the boys, going home, fixing dinner, and then just repeating that, like being on vacation. For the last years of my life, that’s what I thought of.
After Zach’s passing, I play golf now maybe once a month. It’s to be able to spend some extended period with someone that I’m working with in the foundation or spending time with a friend that I haven’t seen for a while. There’s no happiness or desire about scoring well, or again the things that I prioritized before. It’s not even there. That’s a different mindset. All those things before, if I had a great round, that brought me such exhilaration and excitement. It’s not there.
Now I understand there has been a rewiring in my brain. People who suffer from PTSD think of things differently. There are connections. There are neural pathways that have been destroyed. Now I’m recreating some. My dopamine levels don’t fire the way that they used to. There’s not that same experience that’s there. That’s why oftentimes people in grief turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to just feel better and to get through it. I get that to try to feel some sense of normality again and that’s just not there.
Now, I’m starting to get a glimpse that in my new life that I’m creating I may be able to create some happiness or joy. It’s just going to be different than what I experienced before. What will that look like? What I have been able to do through my foundation is create a lot of meaning. David Kessler has a book Finding Meaning. It is incredible for anyone experiencing a loss. It was a life changer for me to be able to redefine what I used to think. The danger when you’re stuck in this grief pattern is thinking life has no meaning for me. That’s a dangerous place to be.
Do you think at this point, Jim, that the meaning that we give our lives is also an evolving process?
Yes and maybe even more so for someone who’s experienced the loss like I have. I would hope that for most people, meaning is evolving throughout the general population. What I fear happens is, that happened for me is we get stuck in a treadmill of having more, wanting more, getting more, and doing more. We define that meaning by the things that we accumulate, the cars that we drive, or the status that we’ll get to observe. Those become the things that we seek after. That’s still evolving there. For those of us who want to work on a personal benefit level, who want to be more mindful and more present in our awareness, my chart in life now or the path that I’m charting is more like theirs. My meaning is evolving.
Right now it is all wrapped around my foundation and how I can hopefully ease the suffering of other parents. Somehow I can bring awareness and education to young families that they don’t have to experience this, or to the recovery community that they can move through their recovery with, not necessarily more speed, but just with more mindfulness and grace. They give themselves more grace as they’re in their recovery process.
That’s my meaning and my goal now. I see a path forward for me where maybe after 5, 6, or 7 years, I can find some meaning in my life through rituals that my wife and I will develop that are different, even outside of the foundation that we can begin to create a life that’s separate or runs parallel with that. Zach will always be part of my life. That foundation is now a legacy to him and a reminder of him always, that’s always going to be a part of my life. That meaning will continue to evolve. I am very hopeful that I will also be able to continue to evolve myself separate from that. I’m not there yet but I’m hopeful.
I wonder if multiple layers of meaning are at play because it’s not just the foundation,. Part of it that I’m inspired by is the whole notion of shattering the stigma of addiction. I know that’s been part of my journey, and the isolation that people feel because of it. They’re not willing to talk about it because of the shame, the stigma, the judgment, and so forth. It is far more prevalent than the vast majority of people believe or know. By your voice, it sends a ripple effect through your community in changing the conversation. That’s incredibly powerful. The work that you and Lynn do relative to the grief work is you are showing up in ways that maybe don’t necessarily show themselves to you.
I see it as a courageous act, number one, to decide to do grief counseling work for yourselves amid this grief because this grief is almost unimaginable. To be courageous enough to go to a group to be vulnerable like that, that’s one thing. To continue to do it, and then to be the ones who create the container and the space for others to bring their grief and their vulnerability to the table. The way that my brain works, feels very interwoven in terms of meaning, connection, and purpose in life. I don’t know if that resonates with you.
KL, thank you so much for saying that. That goes back to the very beginning of our conversation. Seldom do we get a mirror held up to us where we get to see that’s what perhaps other people see because I’ll tell you, it doesn’t feel courageous.Seldom do we get a mirror held up to us where we get to see what other people see. Click To Tweet
From my side of the aisle, it’s super courageous.
I just feel broken so much. If through this process, other people can see a way out or connect to that, then that’s the dream in the recovery and the grief world. If that can bring about that connection, then that’s what we shoot for. Being in all the groups that I’m at, I see people oftentimes even after a year or two, there’s still a choice of anger or frustration. Again, I get that. That’s the way that their path has taken them. That’s so difficult and sometimes that blocks the process when we don’t allow ourselves to experience our grief.
That doesn’t mean that we’re not angry, we don’t blame somebody else, we don’t want there to be justice or somebody punished for this terrible injustice that we feel that’s come our way. When that becomes our only focus, we are prohibiting ourselves from an opportunity to work through that level of grief. Believe me, once we get through that level, there are plenty of levels left. It’s not like, “I don’t want to do that, because then I’m not going to be able to feel anymore.” Trust me, you’re going to feel forever.
The decision that I made to not get stuck in some of those areas or to want to just feel and work through it has allowed me to see some new levels. Those are always new challenges that are coming along. I would never tell somebody, “This is what you need to do. This is how you do it the right way.” I’m just aware of it. When I see somebody else, I can identify with that feeling. I know what that feeling feels like.
For a little bit, I am somewhat thankful that I’ve worked through that. Now, just working through it doesn’t mean that it won’t show up again. Every time it shows up, now I have a pathway, or I can think, “I remember what that is. I can identify what that is. I can honor it. I can give it some time and space.” I can go ahead, set it aside, and move on to the other things that I was working on. Sometimes the grief work, we talk about compartmentalizing.
Sometimes I give myself that time where I just jump into the worst possible thoughts, and then I’m able to say, “Now it’s time to move on.” I can set that to another part of my brain back here and put that back there. Say, “I’ll revisit you in a week or two, but now I’m going to do this.” It is wonderful to be able to do that as opposed to being hijacked by that, or being triggered by it and not understanding or knowing why or when it happened. That only came with time and all the deep work that I’ve been doing.
The way that I think about things, and we’ve talked about this before, is that the most traumatic things that have happened in my life I have viewed as getting cracked wide open. I’ve always viewed that cracking as an opportunity for me to rise to my humanity at a higher level. Those moments when I have dropped to my knees in surrender and sobbing, I have enough experience at this point that I know it is a butterfly moment, honestly. I can hold those two things in the same place at the same time, but that has come with years of practice and belief to be able to know that in my journey, that is my truth.
These conversations are about each one of our truths. People can pick the things out of our truths that they resonate with and let the rest of it go. These kinds of real conversations about what our journey is and our truths give people an opportunity to go, “That is true for me too. If that’s true for me too, then maybe this could be true for me.”
Having the willingness to be open for there to be a possibility. To someone who’s early on in their grief journey, there’s not that possibility now. Don’t beat yourself up about that. Let that go and know that you’re exactly where you need to be right now.
Let me piggyback off on that because that’s super critical. Wherever you are in the course of your journey, please stop judging yourself. There is enough going on in your life. You need to embrace that little child in yourself and hold them in that moment. Stop judging yourself in terms of where you think you should be, where people have said you should be, or anything along those lines. That’s where my ferocity comes up. Please stop. Never allow others to judge you in where you are in your grief.
One of the challenges someone who’s lost a child will get is someone who’ll come up to us a month or two months later, “How are you doing?” How do you think I’m doing? They may see you 6 months or 1 year later, and there’s almost this expectation that now you’ve moved on. That’s in their tone. That’s in the questioning. As we go into the holidays for other family members that want to support, that’s a tough balance, because as a grieving person, I want to tell you, “I don’t know exactly what I want you to say. There may be nothing you say that’s going to be right.”
If you don’t talk to me, I may think, “They don’t want to talk to me. I’m a pariah now.” If you do talk to me, I may think, “Can’t they see that this is so hard for me?” I got a little schizophrenia going on perhaps in that first year. I can speak from my own experience. For the first two and a half months after Zach passed, somebody brought us dinner from my wife’s work or our friends’ every night. We had so much food, we couldn’t eat it all. After that period stopped, people came over every night, and they would just be with us. They never said, “How are you doing?” They would just come in and act normal and allow us to be however we wanted to be.
We might not have showered for 2 or 3 days, or we weren’t together. It didn’t matter. They understood where we were in our process. Fast forward, 6 months or 1 year, and no one reaches out. No one calls. In fact, part of that, I believe is our friends’ inability to know what they should do or what they should act, and for us not having the ability to tell them what we need. That’s a whole lot that we can unpack some other time in the future.
I want people to, as they go to the holidays, if you’re a grieving person, don’t be afraid to tell your family what you need. They may or may not be able to give it to you. You have a choice to honor yourself and do what you need to do. If you’re a family member of a grieving person, don’t hesitate to ask them. “What can I give you that you need?” They may or may not be able to tell you. That’s just what it is. I wish that those were discussions that I could have had in those early times.If you're a grieving person, don't be afraid to tell your family what you need. Click To Tweet
I read something where they were talking about grief, and it was a little boy who went over to his neighbor because his neighbor had lost his wife of 50 years. When he came back home, his mom asked him, “What were you doing over there?” He says, “I was grieving with him.” All he did was crawl up in this man’s lap and be there with him. That’s it. That is what it is. I want to say to people, crawl up in each other’s laps and hold each other and just be. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to fix it, take the pain away, or change it in any way, shape, or form. I’m telling you, love and being present is powerful.
What I want to say to you is, I’m just so deeply grateful for you being in my life. For you, I’m going to still say courageous to share your journey and talk about all of this. Not very many people are willing to do this, Jim. You continue to lead in terms of who you are in the world, and you are changing lives. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Thank you so much.
This sounds so pedestrian. At the same time, where can they get ahold of you?
If they want to continue this conversation or reach out to me, our website is ZacharyHortonFoundation.org. My phone number’s on there and there are email contacts that are on there. That’s the easiest way to reach out to me and I will get back to you.
He will. For those of you who joined us for this very special edition of the show, thank you for being with us. Please share this with others so that they can see some similarities, pick some things up, and see their lives differently because it is only through our connections that we can help each other rise. Love you all.
- Jim Horton
- Finding Meaning
- Zachary Horton Foundation
- Jim Horton On The Loss Of A Child To Addiction – Past Episode
About Jim Horton
I’m Jim Horton. Born and raised in California, I attended college in Fresno. While working in the Mental Health field I met my wife Lynn. We were married in 1991 and had our only child, Zach in 2000. I became “Zach’s Dad”. I was a full time Dad starting 2006. Scout Leader, Soccer and Baseball Coach, Crossing Guard, Class room Assistant, Volleyball Coach, etc…
In 2020 Zach died of an accidental drug overdose. His Mother and I started the Foundation to help others battle this horrendous disease. My life now centers around Speaking, Grief counseling, Podcasting, Sober Living support, Fundraising, Narcan training and helping families like ours navigate the recovery process.