A mom's letter to a son on the anniversary of his death

By Karen Huggins, Calgary, AB

Dear Nathan,

Just a short year ago, my whole world changed in an instant when I found you dead in your bed at around 1:00 in the afternoon. One of the branches of my family tree irrevocably gone, never to return. I’ve spent a lot of time this past year searching past events for a moment in which I might have made a difference in the ultimate outcome; a word or two that may have helped you to understand just how loved you were, how important you are to me, to the whole family, to your friends, to Rosalind. I’ve arrived at no firm conclusions, except for the fact that I needed to understand substance use disorder much better than I did before your fatal overdose…and that I can’t blame myself for that lack of knowledge.

In the thick of trying to help you and keep you alive, there were no road signs leading me to the proper information, no health professionals providing information on opioid addiction and the risks involved with detox, rehab, and being signed out of the system far too early with no proper support and after care. The whole experience was like finding myself in a maze...blindfolded. I’ve had to educate myself this past year, and wish so much that this information had been forthcoming last year, before you took that last dose of fentanyl and never woke up again.

I’m so sorry Nathan. I’m sorry for you, for myself, and for everyone who cared so deeply about you. You were an amazingly intelligent person with an uncommon intellectual curiosity. You are someone who could have made some positive changes in the world on so many different levels. While you were in rehab, I often thought about how much you could contribute to others with substance use disorder through speaking at schools, community centres, conferences…you were always a gifted public speaker, and I felt you could likely communicate well with a group of teenagers who might be living a troubled existence and keen on using drugs to hide away from their pain. But this opportunity was never to be.

Instead, Rosalind and Jessica and I decided to pick up the pieces when you left, and are trying to make a difference in the lives of others. I will not let your death be in vain…unintentionally, you left behind a legacy that needs to be honoured. We are working very hard to change the face of addiction, both in terms of changing policies and strategies, as well as at the grass roots level.

Some days this is hard…grieving your death is hard work. Some days I don’t want to get out of bed. Some days it’s all I can do to ‘act’ normal, whatever that is. I’m still struggling to find the 'new' normal, to not constantly feel that huge hole in my heart. And then there are some days I feel a little better, and understand that I do have the strength within to carry on, live my life well, and move forward in making changes to the outdated policies and strategies and the stigma that have been a hallmark of addictions and mental health services for far too many years.

Your beautiful niece and two adorable little nephews are a huge help to me in this ‘carrying on’ part…we talk about you to them so that they’ll remember Uncle Nathan as they get older. You would get such a kick out of them and their antics!

I keep working away at this whole grief process, and one thing I know: I am so grateful that you are my son, and that I had the honour and pleasure of raising you and having you be a part of my life for almost 35 years. You brought a beautiful light to my life that I’ll always treasure. I just really miss you – your dry wit, your kindness, your love of animals, your beautiful smile, your brightness, your hugs. I wish you so much love and light always.

Love and hugs,