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Life after overdose: grief, shame, 'if onlys'

The pain of losing a loved one to drug abuse or suicide can be exhausting and debilitating, and the isolation caused by the pandemic contributes to both struggles and treatment.

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Fact: More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The growl of the zipper on that October night in 2020 haunts Kim Watkins. If only she had reached her daughter Brittany in time. If only the coroner would have let her touch her. 

“I pleaded over and over to just give me a chance, to just let me warm her up,” Watkins said. “I felt like if I could hold her, she would have pulled through for me.” 

But there was no reviving 31-year-old Brittany York. 

Hours earlier, York had snorted fentanyl-laced heroin and died immediately. Cooked spaghetti drained in the sink. Candles flickered on the kitchen table. She was dressed in sweats and slouched on the couch. 

That evening York became part of a disturbing statistic. According to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. has experienced its highest ever recorded total of drug-related deaths with more than 81,000 drug-overdose deaths in the 12 months ending May 2020. This includes 10 western states that reported over a 98% increase in synthetic, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl, opioid-involved deaths.

“Losing a loved one to an accidental overdose or suicide is heart-breaking no matter when it happens,” said Lydia Burr, director of clinical services at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation of St. Paul. “There really is no time when a loss like this is better.” 

For Watkins, a native of Indianapolis, the grief of losing a child has been exacerbated  by the feeling that the isolation caused by Covid-19 restrictions contributed to her daughter’s death. 

Watkins can’t stop replaying that Sunday when York joined her and her grandson at the zoo. At the end of the day, York asked if she could come home and get in a recovery program. Watkins agreed. They would make a plan. York waved goodbye and blew her a kiss. It was the last time she would see her daughter alive. 

Two days later, York was dead. “I don’t know why I let her get out of the car,” Watkins said. 

Regrets are only a sliver of the agony families face. “There’s a level of shame and guilt that is such a haunting aspect of these losses,” said Patrick O’Malley, Ph.D., a grief therapist in Fort Worth, Texas. “I think these families feel so much shame, which is isolating in itself … The shame is very, very heavy.” 

Watkins has retraced her daughter’s life looking for answers. York, once a bubbly high school cheerleader, began taking pain pills in high school. Then, in college, a boyfriend introduced her to heroin. 

Watkins, a single mother who worked hard to give her daughter a good life, can’t piece together what went wrong. “Towards the end, she told me she felt like her brain was frying from the inside out,” she said. “I’m just at a loss right now.” 

The grieving mother’s reaction is a common one. 

“The grief and shame is so intense,” said Justin Phillips, executive director and founder of Overdose Lifeline in Indianapolis. 

After she lost her son Aaron, 20, to an overdose in 2013, Phillips channeled her grief into something positive, as survivors often do. 

She pushed for legislation that allows a layperson to access Naloxone to treat a narcotic overdose. Overdose Prevention (Aaron’s Law), allows Indiana residents to get the drug without a prescription. 

But the shame heaped on by society is hard to escape. 

“Unless someone has lost a child to an overdose, they just don’t get it,” Phillips said. “They end up saying well-meaning but hurtful things like ‘he or she was such a good kid.’ Well, they’re all good kids. It’s not about being good or bad.” 

O’Malley, co-author of “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss (Sounds True: 2017),”  said: “Our culture is not all that great at supporting grieving people. To make matters worse during the pandemic, people are losing their rituals. But people need funerals or services.” 

Mental health professionals have tried to help substance users and their families get through the pandemic by offering meetings online. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation offers virtual outpatient therapy as a safe way to reach out.

But nothing has helped Watkins. “I feel so isolated in my home,” she said. “I need human contact.” Lost in her grief, she drove around with her daughter’s urn in the passenger seat. 

“Do you think you want a bench?” she asked York as she struggled to find a way to honor her daughter. 

Finding ways to memorialize a loved one can help survivors. “Remembering someone’s story matters,” Burr said. “And there is still hope. Hope is really such a strong thing.”

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Jan Jarvis

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