It's a hard road, the one that we walk after our children die from a drug overdose. It's a walk that numbs your feet from the miles of isolation and grief. So many Orange County moms and dads are on this road now, too many of them. I'm only one of thousands. The White House is now trying to grapple with the problem (In heroin fight, White House tries to break down walls between public health, police, August 16, 2015), but they will likely fall short. A strategy that doesn't prioritize empowering people who use drugs to save their own lives and the lives of their peers by making the opiate overdose reversal medicine naloxone far more readily available to them is doomed to disappoint expectations. Ask a parent of a child who could have been saved by naloxone, they'll tell you.
Lost in the publicity around the White House's plan to reduce accidental drug overdose deaths are the faces and stories of our own sons and daughters, our friends and siblings, the people we knew who died from a drug overdose. They were smart, thoughtful, good people. I'm so tired of how we "other" them in our stories about drug addiction. My own son Jeff certainly didn't deserve to be "othered." He was athletic and charming; he was handsome and kind. His dad and I were very proud of him for turning into such a bright, lovely, young man. Heroin changed him in some ways, but in other ways he remained the loving, gentle person he always was.
He died in 2008 at the age of 27 from an accidental overdose. Our whole family had struggled to help him. It was a multi-year herculean effort that challenged everything we knew about being good parents. But my God we loved him, even through the worst of it, because we could still see our Jeff in there; in his darkness and struggle, we still saw our beautiful son.
After Jeff's death, my husband Gary and I made a life-altering, enormously positive decision. We decided to channel our energy towards connecting with others who had also experienced this kind of loss. We knew we would never recover from the loss of our son, but we also knew that there must be other families who, like us, had suffered the loss of their loved one. We started a GRASP chapter (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), a national support group. Two months later we took over the organization. When we began searching for others like us, we couldn't have known the magnitude of what we'd find.
Moms and dads all across Orange County and Southern California, looking for each other, coming together and building communities of strength where only sorrow had previously existed. We began to discuss how we could pass laws, the ones that could have saved our kids. Laws like the "911 Good Samaritan" law which encourages people to call for help at the scene of a suspected overdose without fear of arrest for drug violations. We met in living rooms, in restaurants, in backyards, and in support groups. We organized, we strategized, and we worked to help pass that law and then another one, one that makes the overdose reversal drug naloxone available in pharmacies without a prescription. And on one day every year, International Overdose Awareness Day, we all come together not just to mourn, but also to celebrate the incredible good that we've done and the fierce love for our kids that never fades and that drives us to keep going.
This year, we're walking, a walk of remembrance and unity, on the Huntington Beach Pier on August 30th at 6:00 p.m. Every year parents and loved ones all around the world find their way to a local Overdose Awareness Day event to meet others like them; to find comforting faces along their walk toward healing and strength.
For a parent, processing the grief, stigma, shame, and confusion of our child's overdose death is exhausting and arduous. It's a journey we never expected to take and when it came, we hadn't packed, we weren't prepared, and yet we were on our way. We were instantly catapulted down that road further away from life as we knew it and closer to a destination we hoped would provide at least some measure of respite when we arrived. As the loved ones left behind, we all walk that road. We walk it, but now we walk it together.
Denise Cullen, MSW, LCSW runs GRASP, an international organization for grief recovery after a substance passing (www.grasphelp.org), and is a founding member of Moms United to End the War on Drugs (www.momsunited.net). She and her husband founded Broken No More (www.broken-no-more.org), a nonprofit support and advocacy organization. Denise and Gary live in Orange County.