The Family Grieving Process: How to Heal and Find Meaning within the Madness

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
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Sara Polley, MD, watched her dad struggle with addiction for much of her life, and she had grown to expect bad news. When she learned of his death, some part of her felt relieved—his suffering was finally done, and he had found peace. Now she serves as a medical director for Hazelden Betty Ford, and she speaks with host William C. Moyers about the family grieving process: it’s a storm of emotions, but it’s also an opportunity to find empathy, meaning and grace.

I've seen chaos like that, I've seen struggle like that, I've seen—I've seen what that looks like.

Dr. Sara Polley

0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a podcast series produced by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers. Over the years I've interviewed many colleagues and often I hear their deeply personal stories of how they turned their own struggle and addiction into a life of recovery and with it, a career helping other people recover. It is rare, actually, to hear a colleague share their story that is forged from the loss, heartache, and trauma that follows the death of a loved one from alcoholism or drug addiction. As too many families know, death is the only real bottom for people suffering with this chronic illness. It happens all the time too. A tragic story told by too many families year after year after decade. Dr. Sara Polley is the Medical Director of Hazelden Betty Ford's National Substance Use and Mental Health Treatment Center for Adolescents and Young Adults in suburban Minneapolis. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. She joined Hazelden Betty Ford earlier in 2021. Thank you, Dr. Polley, for being with us today.

0:01:24 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah thanks so much for having me!

0:01:25 William Moyers
Tell us your family's story.

0:01:28 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah, I would love to. So, yeah, so I grew up here in Minnesota, just in suburbs south of the Twin Cities. And we were kind of an average middle-class family growing up. My dad had struggled with alcoholism before I was born.

0:01:45 William Moyers

0:01:45 Dr. Sara Polley
And then when I was born, actually ended up having a car accident when I was pretty young. I think secondary to his alcohol use. And then actually entered a period of sobriety for a long time. He went—he was an AA participant, you know, really found meaning in that. And was, you know, and then I ended up having two more brothers. And my family was kinda plugging along, just doing our thing, and then unfortunately when I was eleven, I had my younger brother who was eight pass away suddenly. We were—it's actually a very sad story. We were on vacation and he drowned in the swimming pool. At the vacation. Which was really unexpected as you can imagine. And really traumatic for my family. And, you know, as a result of that, I think my parents really struggled. And at the time, you know just being a kid, I knew that our lives would always be different. After that. And I knew that my parents were having a hard time. But, you know, like a lot of people in my family, you didn't really go see a therapist. You didn't go see a psychiatrist. [Moyers nods] You just sorta like, you know, prayed about it and relied on your family—

0:02:52 William Moyers

0:02:53 Dr. Sara Polley
—And tried to keep going forward. And so, you know, I could see that both my parents really struggled. And then it was, you know, I think—I don't know how much after that that my dad relapsed on alcohol. You know and looking back, they—my parents and my dad—worked really, really hard at trying to find the best treatment. Like I remember him.

0:03:15 William Moyers

0:03:16 Dr. Sara Polley
—You know, things would get bad, he would you know be willing to have some help. They would go—I think they went to see a naturopath for a while and he was taking supplements. He tried to go back to AA. My mom's father actually prior to him passing away was in recovery for alcohol—from alcoholism for like 30 years—

0:03:33 William Moyers
Wow. [nods]

0:03:34 Dr. Sara Polley
—And so he tried to help my dad, take him to meetings, he got a sponsor. [Moyers nods] You know and there were a lot of periods there where he would be doing really well. He was the breadwinner for our family, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. So, you know, I was looking back it's like through all of that, he kept a full-time job, he, you know, supported our family, would go, you know, had—sometimes had to go to detox or something would happen and he would, you know, get picked up and then have to go to detox and then come home and be right up ready to go to work the next day. When he—after he had gotten home 'cause he knew that that's what he had to do for our family. And then, when I was in college, he had gotten pretty ill. And had been kinda going to detoxes coming home and I think was feeling really hopeless.

0:04:19 William Moyers
Hmm. Mmm. [nods]

0:04:18 Dr. Sara Polley
And I, you know, felt like nothing was working. And I—I was at college, it was my actually the—I think it was September 4th because it was the very first day of us being in our new apartments at college. And I had just moved in and I was really excited. And got a phone call from my aunt actually that said, 'Your mom and I are driving up to campus. Are you at the apartments?' And I said, 'Oh yeah, I'm at the apartments.' They said, 'Okay, well, we'll be there in about 20 minutes.'

0:04:48 William Moyers
Mmm. [nods]

0:04:48 Dr. Sara Polley
And my first thought actually was I bet my dad died. Like that—

0:04:52 William Moyers
Wow. You just knew it?

0:04:54 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. 'Cause I think he had been struggling for so long that it was—it seemed like there was not gonna be another outcome, really. I mean 'cause I couldn't see how else it was gonna end because of how sick he was. And so, and of course I didn't hope that would happen, I hoped that well maybe he'll go back to inpatient—

0:05:11 William Moyers

0:05:12 Dr. Sara Polley
—Maybe, you know, one of these times it's gonna work or maybe something will happen and he'll, you know, have a spiritual experience—

0:05:18 William Moyers

0:05:18 Dr. Sara Polley
—And then feel really motivated or something. But so actually I remember I was outside in the back of our—the apartment building I was living in at a picnic table. Like waiting for them to show up. And they showed up in my aunt's car and my mom came over and told me that my dad had died. And like I said, I don't think I was super surprised. And you know I think a lot of families that have a family member who struggles with addiction, when that—if and when that person passes away, they feel a lot of relief. And I remember feeling a lot of relief—

0:05:49 William Moyers
Really? Ah.

0:05:50 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. And I think, you know, partially because he didn't have to suffer anymore. Because it really was truly suffering in the same way that you might see a parent suffer from something like cancer or heart disease. I mean—

0:06:02 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. [nods]

0:06:02 Dr. Sara Polley
—Trying the treatments, them not working, you know it was really isolating to be the child of somebody that's struggling 'cause you don't share with that with your friends, you don't talk about it. People wonder why isn't your dad here, where is your dad. But you don't really, 'Oh no he's busy,' or you don't really wanna talk about it. So I felt like well that piece is gonna be gone, I don't have to try to pretend like everything's normal at my house and with my family.

0:06:26 William Moyers

0:06:28 Dr. Sara Polley
You know, so I think yeah. And he passed away really suddenly, even though I sort of wasn't surprised—

0:06:35 William Moyers

0:06:35 Dr. Sara Polley
—He had been in an inpatient treatment and then had come home and then actually ended up having a heart attack while he was having a withdrawal seizure—

0:06:45 William Moyers

0:06:45 Dr. Sara Polley

0:06:47 William Moyers
Sara, how old was he?

0:06:48 Dr. Sara Polley
He was 47.

0:06:50 William Moyers
And what was his name?

0:06:51 Dr. Sara Polley

0:06:52 William Moyers

0:06:52 Dr. Sara Polley

0:06:53 William Moyers
47 is so young!

0:06:53 Dr. Sara Polley

0:06:54 William Moyers
So young. How do you remember his addiction when you were little? Did you all talk about it, openly talk about it or was it sort of the best or worst-kept secret? Or how did it manifest itself when you were little?

0:07:10 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Well it was interesting because I think, you know, since my dad had been involved in AA, and my mom had gone to Al-Anon, I think—

0:07:16 William Moyers

0:07:18 Dr. Sara Polley
—You know, my mom and our family worked to try to talk about it. But it was really just within our nuclear family. It was definitely this message of 'well we talk about it but we just don't talk about it with our neighbors or your friends.' [chuckles] You know? And we sometimes would talk about it with our extended family but often, not unless it was a crisis and we needed help.

0:07:36 William Moyers
Often times we have, you know, stories of hope and we highlight the power of recovery whether it's at Hazelden Betty Ford or at the Salvation Army or another treatment facility. But, we do know the outcome with this illness can be what happened to your dad. What is the message that you want our viewers and listeners to know about your dad's struggle and ultimately his death?

0:08:01 Dr. Sara Polley
Well, I guess what I—when I think about what I would like people to know is that I don't think that his and really anyone who has a family member who's struggling who may pass away, I'd like to think that the reason that I am where I am—

0:08:17 William Moyers

0:08:18 Dr. Sara Polley
—Is because of him. And so, you know, even just driving here to do this interview, I was thinking about him.

0:08:23 William Moyers

0:08:24 Dr. Sara Polley
And thinking about him being with me while I was talking to you. And, you know, my goal in sharing this story is I want other kids who I know are in that situation to know that they can use that experience to provide a sense of purpose for them.

0:08:41 William Moyers
Hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:08:41 Dr. Sara Polley
And, you know, when I show up to work every day, when I was in Medical School, when I was studying for my Board exams, when I was doing all the things I needed to do, I knew I was doing it because I wanted to do it for my dad.

0:08:52 William Moyers

0:08:53 Dr. Sara Polley
And I wanted to be able to share my experience. And you know when you go through something like that, whether it's your personal story or a family member, I think there's a certain kind of insight and empathy that you can have for others, that I think if you haven't been through something like that, you can of course, you know, love others and care about others, but I don't think you can quite understand.

0:09:15 William Moyers
Yes. [nods]

0:09:15 Dr. Sara Polley
And so, you know, I remember thinking when I was in college and this happened—at first it's like well this is awful, nothing good is gonna come from this. And then kind of over time, as you kind of move through the grief process, coming to the realization that this can be a super powerful thing that I can use to help other people.

0:09:33 William Moyers
Yes. I wanna come back to that in just a minute. But let me ask you—how did you recover? I mean, because I often times particularly with the opioid epidemic—

0:09:41 Dr. Sara Polley

0:09:41 William Moyers
—I would say to families who've lost a loved one that, you know, just—you've gotta take care of yourself and they'd say, 'Well why? Our loved one is gone, it doesn't matter anymore.' But it does matter. So how did you do it?

0:09:51 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Well that's a really wonderful point to bring up 'cause I think, you know, that initial relief feeling when you have a loved one that passes away that's been suffering is, 'Oh good now my life can go back to being normal, and I don't have to have addiction be a part of my life anymore.' [chuckles] And it's, you know, and I think there's probably a period where that feels like it's true—

0:10:09 William Moyers
[chuckles] Right.

0:10:09 Dr. Sara Polley
—And then over time you realize that you've been impacted by the trauma that you've been through. And you can't, you know, you could just kinda plug along and not really try to think about it or deal with it, but you're really gonna be inhibiting yourself from being able to be who you really are.

0:10:25 William Moyers

0:10:26 Dr. Sara Polley
And so, you know it's through a lot of therapy work, it's through, you know, allowing yourself to move through the stages of grief, and understanding that it doesn't always make sense. And, you know, coming to the realization that yeah, sometimes I'm gonna hear a stupid song on the radio and I'm gonna start crying on my way home from work [Moyers chuckles], even though he's been dead for a long time. And not like beat myself up about that. That that's just part of what it is.

0:10:47 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:10:48 Dr. Sara Polley
But yeah, but you're right I think that's a really important point about it is that there is this kinda desire to just like go back to normal. And you're not gonna do yourself justice if you do that, right?

0:10:58 William Moyers

0:10:59 Dr. Sara Polley
Like you deserve it to yourself to put some work in. To come out the other side--

0:11:03 William Moyers

0:11:04 Dr. Sara Polley
—Being a better and more powerful person.

0:11:06 William Moyers
And in your case, you took the adversity of your loss, the challenge that you had with trauma, you were a young woman at the time. You took that adversity, that loss, and you turned it into the opportunity to do what you're doing today. How has your personal experience informed and helped you to be a better doctor?

0:11:31 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Well, you know I think—I think the first thing that came to my mind when you said that was that just the process of being with a person who's struggling, and being able to sit with them and hold the situation and tolerate the situation, is something that I think I bring to working with patients. You know, I remember when I was back in training, you would have a patient who struggled with addiction or with mental illness, and some of the stories they would tell are just tragic and hard, you know, hard to understand. And I remember I would sort of be sitting there like, 'No, I get it, I've seen chaos like that, I've seen struggle like that, I've seen—I've seen what that looks like.' And so to me it wasn't sort of shocking or overwhelming. [Moyers nods] Like I think it could be. It was sort of like, 'No, I understand—I get it. I get what you're saying.' [chuckles] You know? I could identify with that kind of situation and how difficult that can get.

0:12:27 William Moyers

0:12:27 Dr. Sara Polley
And so I think that's something that, you know, I don't necessarily say to my patient like, 'Oh I—I know what that's like or I see that—

0:12:33 William Moyers

0:12:34 Dr. Sara Polley
—But I think that you don't necessarily need to say that. I think people sense that, right? Like when I'm sitting with somebody and I'm not—and I'm holding that situation and that emotion and that story with them, that they can sense that to me it's okay and it's not a big deal. And I don't—I'm not looking at them like something's wrong with them. Or that they're somehow messed up. That's not the perspective I'm taking—

0:12:58 William Moyers

0:12:59 Dr. Sara Polley
—And I think people can just feel that I don't need to say that.

0:13:00 William Moyers

0:13:01 Dr. Sara Polley
And so that's a big piece of what I bring—

0:13:02 William Moyers
Mmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:13:04 Dr. Sara Polley
—To kind of the relationships that I form with my patients.

0:13:08 William Moyers
And yet in the medical profession, no matter where we are in the medical profession, and in our case, in the field of addiction treatment and recovery, professional boundaries are professional boundaries.

0:13:18 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Mmm-hmm.

0:13:20 William Moyers
Doctors and nurses and other health care workers are encouraged to keep that boundary. How does that work for you? [chuckles]

0:13:31 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. [smiles] Well yeah, no I think that really goes back to what I was just saying. Is I—and I'm a trained psychiatrist and so—

0:13:36 William Moyers

0:13:36 Dr. Sara Polley
—That's a huge part of our training is maintaining boundaries with your patients, right? Because you can make—you become very intimate with your patients and so it's very important that the relationship stays for the benefit of the patient. It is not my relationship that I'm benefitting off of, it's really the one for my patient. And so, and we're always trained to really be aware of that and focus on that. So, you know, and so I—I would say I don't—I can't even think of a single patient that I have that necessarily knows that that's my personal story now. [Moyers chuckles] Unless they were to find it online or something like that.

0:14:06 William Moyers

0:14:07 Dr. Sara Polley
But like I said, I almost think that it's not relevant that I have to say anything. I think I can provide, you know, compassionate, evidence-based care to my patients, and there's just this feeling in the room when we're together—

0:14:18 William Moyers

0:14:19 Dr. Sara Polley
—That I think this person gets it, I think this person isn't being judgmental of me, you know? 'Cause there's so much to communication and connection—

0:14:27 William Moyers

0:14:27 Dr. Sara Polley
—That isn't what you say, right?

0:14:29 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. [smiles]

0:14:29 Dr. Sara Polley
And so I think that there is something that's being communicated even though I'm still, you know, doing perfectly fine maintaining my boundary—

0:14:34 William Moyers
Right. [nods, smiles]

0:14:34 Dr. Sara Polley
—I'm not oversharing my experience.

0:14:36 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Your focus is on addiction medicine and young people. Why?

0:14:41 Dr. Sara Polley
Oh I love working with that age group! It's my absolute favorite. You know I think it's such a cool, exciting time. And part of that I think is from my own experience, right? Because—

0:14:50 William Moyers

0:14:50 Dr. Sara Polley
—You know I—I was kind of emerging out of this family that had its own struggles. I was able to go to college, thankfully I was fortunate enough, right, to like live on campus and I—I felt like I was almost like I mean not to be cheesy but a butterfly like coming out, right? I could figure out who I was, I could—I could shed kind of some of the dysfunction that I had been in. I could invent who I wanted to be. I could use my experiences and make my own decisions. And so, you know, I love working with patients who are right on that cusp, right? Where maybe what they're coming from is something challenging. Or dysfunctional. And they don't have to continue that cycle. They can—they have the autonomy and the ability and most of the time, the patients I work with are the most amazingly resilient people I've ever met--

0:15:33 William Moyers
Yes. [nods, smiles]

0:15:34 Dr. Sara Polley
—They can do that if they wanna do that. And sometimes they just don't know or they forget or everyone else hasn't told them that, right?

0:15:38 William Moyers

0:15:40 Dr. Sara Polley
Like they've gotten messages that they messed up, or you're just gonna be like your you know XYZ other family member that struggled. So to be able to be somebody different in their life that can say like, 'Oh my God cool, look at you!' [Moyers chuckles] Like, 'look at what you're gonna be able to do with yourself!' So I mean from a psychological perspective I think that's a big piece. And then you know from a biologic perspective, the brain is still amazingly capable of change when you're a teen and a young adult. And so I just earlier today was telling a patient this that was like how cool is that that if you get this figured out right now—

0:16:11 William Moyers

0:16:11 Dr. Sara Polley
—Your brain could potentially not have any long-term impacts. From the substances you were using or, you know, from the trauma that you've experienced.

0:16:18 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:16:19 Dr. Sara Polley
We could get you to a place where you're gonna have an awesome life and this isn't gonna have to be something you carry around with you. Because your brain is actually capable of doing that right now. And how awesome is it that you got here when you were 20 and we still have time. You know? Versus a patient coming in when they're older, it's not that it can't happen, it just takes a lot of work. [chuckles]

0:16:36 William Moyers
Yes. [smiles]

0:16:37 Dr. Sara Polley
You know? So, so yes, I love working with young people.

0:16:40 William Moyers
Well I often tell young people that I—and I'm not a clinician, believe me—but when people ask me for help and they're lamenting that they have to go to treatment at 18 or 20, I say, 'Are you kidding, you're so lucky!'

0:16:52 Dr. Sara Polley

0:16:52 William Moyers
To be able to start down that road of recovery now. I wasted half my teens, all my twenties, and half of my thirties before I finally found recovery.

0:16:57 Dr. Sara Polley

0:16:59 William Moyers
So, I know it is—I know it's hard to go to treatment when you're a young person, but on the other hand, you get to start over.

0:17:06 Dr. Sara Polley

0:17:07 William Moyers
You know, and do that. I wanna come back to your personal story because this is a story of hope.

0:17:12 Dr. Sara Polley

0:17:13 William Moyers
Tell us how has your family continued to recover, in those years since your dad died?

0:17:21 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Well, you know I think it's been—I think it's been a different journey for each of us, right?

0:17:26 William Moyers

0:17:28 Dr. Sara Polley
I think, you know, I have a brother—my brother who's living, who's in his early thirties and I think, you know, he—when my dad passed away he was younger. And so I think he was just impacted in different ways than I was—

0:17:40 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm.

0:17:41 Dr. Sara Polley
—And also being a son and having your dad pass away I think is also a little bit different. So you know I think it took him a little bit longer to get through college than, you know, probably what he would have naturally. I mean he's a really, really intelligent guy. He's actually a Mechanical Engineer now.

0:17:55 William Moyers

0:17:56 Dr. Sara Polley
But, you know, I think his path just maybe took a little bit longer.

0:17:59 William Moyers
Of course. What is the final message with our last minute or so that we have? I mean here you are, sharing yourself on one of our podcasts that'll be seen, you know, not just within the Hazelden Betty Ford family, not just in the addiction community or the recovery community, but to whomever wants to go out to YouTube or all those other sources. And you are standing up and speaking out and putting an accurate face. On the power of addiction and also the promise and possibility of recovery. What is the message you want to leave with our viewers and listeners today?

0:18:33 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Well that's a big question—

0:18:35 William Moyers

0:18:35 Dr. Sara Polley
—You know, I think the main message I wanna leave with people is that if you're somebody who's in a situation where you're really struggling, or you have a family member that's struggling, that that's not the end of the story. I mean, you—

0:18:51 William Moyers

0:18:51 Dr. Sara Polley
—You have the ability and like I said, when you go through difficult things, you have a special almost like a superpower I think. [Moyers chuckles] That you can use for whatever purpose you wanna use it for. You can use it for good, you can use it to help others. And so, you know, you have the opportunity to move forward and step forward and kind of create your own journey. You know and so, it is really a—it can be really a hopeful thing. You can emerge out of the really difficult struggle. I guess is the mai

0:19:21 William Moyers

0:19:21 Dr. Sara Polley
—Message I would wanna tell people. Is that it—you can have hope and it is a reason to be hopeful.

0:19:25 William Moyers
And you're living that message today

0:19:27 Dr. Sara Polley

0:19:28 William Moyers
—And we're so grateful that you have brought that message to us and used your own experience to empower other people.

0:19:34 Dr. Sara Polley

0:19:34 William Moyers
To find that hope and that help. And that healing. Dr. Sara Polley, thank you so much for being with us today.

0:19:38 Dr. Sara Polley
Yeah. Thank you so much!

0:19:40 William Moyers
[turns to camera]And thank you all for joining us. Remember, addiction is an illness that does not discriminate. But treatment works and recovery is possible so if you or a loved one are struggling, with a substance use issue, don't wait. Reach out and ask for help. Because treatment works and recovery is possible. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, I hope you'll join us for another edition of Let's Talk. See ya soon.

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