Bringing overdose deaths out of the closet


“14 March, 2011 will forever be the darkest day in my life when I received the phone call from my eldest son that his brother Michael had died of an apparent overdose.”

There is no more powerful grief than that of a parent who has lost a child.

This tribute on the International Overdose Awareness Day website, from a lady named Cathy, is one of many from parents who have lost a child to a drug overdose.

Overdose Day, on 31 August, began in St Kilda, Australia, in 2001. It was a small event, where two local community workers handed out ribbons to anyone who wished to commemorate a friend, partner or family member who had passed away due to a drug overdose.

In that first year, over 6,000 silver ribbons were distributed. The event clearly touched a nerve, and before long it had spread across Australia and around the world.

This year, Overdose Day was marked by around 150 events across United States Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, India and New Zealand. The events came in all shapes and sizes – from morning teas, film screenings, remembrance services, candle-light vigils to rallies.

Furthermore, people were encouraged to post their own heart-felt tribute on the website and to share their story with others.

Amongst the posts on the website is Cathy’s poignant and powerful tribute. Her post tells a story of promise, addiction and loss that is, sadly, all too common.

“Michael was loved by so many. He was bright and funny and kind to all who knew him. He had struggled with addiction for many years, was on that roller coaster of getting clean and moving forward with his life, to falling back into the abyss. Throughout those years, he managed to earn a Master’s Degree in education and looked forward to his dream of being a Special Ed teacher. The overdose came at a point when he was trying on his own to get clean. It was a huge mistake, and I will forever feel the guilt for not insisting he do so with help and supervision. He died at age 31, just months before he was to be in his brother’s wedding.”

Overdose deaths do not just happen to people on the periphery of society. They can occur anywhere, to anyone. What’s more, they are happening more often than most people realise, or dare to admit.

According to the 2014 United Nation’s World Drug Report, there were an estimated 183,000 drug-related deaths reported in 2012. Of course, many more are unreported.

Just as sobering is the finding that just one-in-six problem drug users has access to, or receives, drug dependency treatment and services.

Despite the overwhelming scale of the problem, drug overdose deaths remain under the radar. In all the media discussion about the global “war on drugs”, the personal suffering felt by those who have lost loved ones is rarely mentioned, let alone acknowledged.

As Cathy notes in her tribute to Michael, the parents of people lost to drug overdose carry a debilitating burden – of loss, guilt and shame.

“Though I finally turned a corner in my grief and accepted that Michael is no longer here, I still have dark days when I cry easily and wish I could turn back time. I miss Michael every day. I think about what I might have done differently every day. And my heart breaks over and over again when I hear about another young person lost to this horribleness, another mother who will be living in grief. I am paralyzed to know what to do about this, except to begin to speak out loud about it.”

The stigma attached to drug use remains strong. This stigma itself affects the mental health and wellbeing of people who use drugs, and the social barriers caused by our attitudes to people who use drugs impede their capacity to access life saving treatment.

The impact of our cultural taboo around drug use doesn’t stop at a person’s death. It can continue to affect their families, adding salt to the wounds of their loss.

Another tribute, from Karen to her partner Shane, captures the feeling that drug overdose deaths are somehow less worthy, and therefore the grief associated with a drug overdose is also less worthy:

“I don’t know why there are some people out there who think because the person died of a drug overdose that it’s not as tragic as if it were a car accident or terminal illness ... it’s a loss no matter how they left us.”

Reading through the tributes to people who have lost their lives due to drug overdoses is an emotional rollercoaster. All speak of the void that has been left behind, most speak to the sense of sadness and of promise unfulfilled, and some give vent to anger and frustration.

For example, the following post from Jamie challenges all of us to stop, think and act:

“These are our brothers and sisters that are dying from drugs. When will we stop ignoring this issue? When will we stop judging others? When we will stop labeling others? When will we stop blaming others? When will we start acknowledging there is a huge epidemic in this country? When will we start supporting those afflicted and the families that love them? When?”

Overdose Day is one small, but significant, step towards answering Jamie’s cry.

It’s about recognising the infinite value of each human being.

Where there is community there is strength, and where there is passion there is hope. Overdose Day provides an opportunity to remember those we have lost, and to imagine a better future throughout the rest of the year.

This story has been translated from French.