The pain of losing your child to an overdose

It’s hard to imagine that a year has passed since May 21, 2016, when I received the news that is every parent’s worst nightmare. I was told over the phone by the RCMP that my only child, Robby, had passed away from an overdose.

He was only 24, and a week later we learned from the coroner that he had died from an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Losing a child to an overdose is no different than losing a child to a disease such as cancer, or to a vehicle accident, or violence. You have joined a club that you never planned or wanted to be part of. Suddenly, the empathy you have felt for other parents’ losses over the years has become a real and tangible thing in your own life.

Your heart, mind and body are shocked into accepting the reality that your child will no longer walk through your door, sit at family dinners, send you daily texts, or share their hopes and dreams for their future. The pain of losing a child is like no other. I’ve experienced losses in my life — my grandparents, my parents and an ugly divorce — but nothing in life prepared me for this kind of pain.

What is different about losing a child to an overdose? It’s the layers that unravel after your child is gone. Every part of your being as a parent yearns to protect your child starting at that glorious moment of birth. You have invested years supporting him through his struggles and have tirelessly worked through many challenges, advocating for supports and services — ever hopeful for recovery, ever hopeful for your child’s wellness.

You find your mind reviewing every conversation you had with your child. What didn’t I say? What could I have done more of? Why didn’t I sense something was wrong?

After losing Robby, I felt compelled to connect with other families who have experienced a similar loss. I joined Moms Stop the Harm, a Canada-wide network of moms and families who have all lost someone to an overdose. Sadly, each week we welcome new members as fentanyl leaves behind its deadly wake of deaths across our nation. I bravely share Robby’s story, and I play whatever role I can in supporting a call to action in light of this overdose crisis.

One year later, and the deaths due to fentanyl continue at an unprecedented rate. Despite initial measures implemented by our government, there is little change in the monthly statistics. It is the recreational users and those like my son, who use substances in the privacy of their homes, who are making the headlines each week.

Clearly, the initial measures are not affecting these individuals; this speaks volumes as to what is lacking in our approach to addiction. Clearly, it will take a brave and bold political will to stem the heartbreaking loss of so many individuals in our province, and our nation.

Countries such as Portugal have led the way for us. The evidence is there to guide those who delegate funding to this issue. This aspect of addiction really is about priorities. So what is my dream for the future?

  • Our approach to addiction needs to change from a criminal-justice focus to a public-health approach. Individuals struggling with addiction have the right to proper medical care and deserve the same level of support and treatment options as anyone else.
  • Free access to naloxone in all provinces.
  • Early identification, intervention and prevention supports (mental health and addiction) must be developed at a middle/high school level to better support educators, families and youth.
  • Medically supervised drugs such as heroin should be approved to improve the health and safety for those with long-term drug-addiction challenges.
  • The stigma around drug addiction must end. Uneducated and uninformed opinions only serve to prevent people from getting the help they need. Overcoming stigma can be a major step forward in a person’s journey toward recovery.

What is it like to lose a child due to overdose? You go forward in life because you really don’t have a choice. It’s not about bravery or coping well. Like other bereaved parents, you soon recognize that you will carry this pain for a lifetime.

Time does not make the empty space less empty. You learn to pick up the pieces and move forward, but your life will never be the same.

Jennifer Howard

Times Colonist, MAY 24, 2017