It is too often a lonely and hidden pain. Acquaintances, friends and even family struggle to find words to say to a parent whose child has recently died from a substance-use related death.
While the exact number of such deaths locally is hard to pin down, preliminary findings show in our health services delivery area — North Shore/Coast Garibaldi — there were 42 illicit drug deaths in 2017, according to a recent coroner’s report.
And yet there hasn’t been a specific support group in Squamish for parents suffering this kind of loss — until now.
Two local mothers are turning their grief into action by launching a Squamish support group for parents whose child has died from a substance-use related death.
“There’s nothing in this town for people who have lost their children or partners — people who they love — to substance use,” said Jully Buckley, whose son Travis died in December of 2016 when he was 33 years old. “There are nuances to the loss that isn’t the same as going to a bereavement group... It is often not the same kind of conversation.”
In practical terms, Buckley noted, there are differences in the various processes that go on after the death, for example. With a death from a drug poisoning, police and the coroner may be involved. She recently received the RCMP report on her son’s death — well over one year after he died.
“I have still not received the coroner’s report,” she said.
Questions about these processes are something that relatives who lost loved ones in other ways don’t necessarily have.
Buckley said in addition to gut-wrenching sadness over the death, emotions for grieving parents could include shame, guilt, and even a startling wave of relief if the child has died after a lengthy battle with addiction.
Sharing these emotions with others dealing with the same things can be comforting, said Buckley.
Squamish’s Diane Hannah, whose son Lee, 29, died from a methadone overdose in 2008, is co-founding the new Squamish support group.
There was nowhere for her to turn when Lee died, she said, and the pain was as overwhelming as it was unique.
“If you lose a parent, you have lost part of your past and if you lose a friend you have lost part of your present, but when you lose a child, you’ve lost your future — that is why the loss is very profound.”
What to say to the bereaved
For anyone who encounters a parent who has recently lost a child this way, Hannah says to avoid statements such as “He’s in a better place.”
Home safe and sound would be a better place.
Another hurtful comment she received was, “We lost him years ago,” she recalled. The person was referring to her son’s years of struggles with substance abuse.
Buckley said what a bereaved parent needs to hear is very individual, but not saying anything at all about the loss can be the most hurtful thing of all.
“I think acknowledging in any way, even if it is just ‘I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know what would be comforting at this moment,’” she said.
Be sympathetic, but not empathetic, one expert suggests.
“Saying, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this,’ may be more supportive than comments like, ‘I understand how you feel,’” writes psychologist Elizabeth Hartney, in her insightful article, Being Supportive after a Drug Death in the Family.
Be present, Hartney said. Offer to go for a visit with the grieving; be available for phone calls; respond promptly to email messages; send a card, letter, or flowers. She also suggests accepting the feelings of the bereaved, whatever they may be, avoiding blame language and supporting self-care.
Buckley noted that bigger societal issues play into the awkwardness of what to say and do.
Our society doesn’t discuss death openly, in general, and increasingly, people aren’t vulnerable — on social media many present their lives as perfect, when no one and no family is perfect, for example.
“We don’t have honest conversations where we sit across from each other and say this is really [hard] I don’t know what to do with it,” she said.
When someone dies, friends and family want to point to a reason that can help them understand and so they can feel if they avoid that mistake, their child will be safe.
The uncomfortable truth is, that isn’t always the case. Drug use and addiction are complicated and there is no one way to ensure your child is always safe — especially an adult child, Buckley noted.
“I truly believed when I had my kids that if I was altruistic, and if I lived by example that they would always make the right choices, and what a shock,” Buckley said.
Hannah stressed the grief parents experience does lessen in time.
A few months after her son died, she came to a crossroads, she recalled.
“You are in a dark hole, and you realize that you either need to snap out of it or you are going to stay there.”
Overwhelmingly, it is mothers who reach out for help and join together in support, the mothers said.
There are few places for fathers to turn, and often they have a harder time expressing how they are feeling, their wives say.
Hannah’s husband didn’t recover from their son’s death. He died a few years after Lee.
“So it ended his life as well,” she said.
Buckley noted too that her husband has had few people with whom to speak openly about his journey.
“It is the moms who are more verbose and able to speak from the heart and… it is really difficult for [men] to be really vulnerable and access the parts of their emotions.”
The women’s wish is for there to be more options in the community to help the fathers of loss as well.
In 2016, bereaved mother Petra Schulz co-founded the online group Moms Stop The Harm (www.momsstoptheharm.com) that both Buckley and Hannah belong to. The group also has a closed Facebook page.
Schulz lost her youngest child Danny, 25, to an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2014.
Her son had been in recovery leading up to his death, but relapsed and died.
That is one thing people should know,” she said. “When you try to lose weight, or you exercise more, we all have days when we eat that extra piece of pie, or we turn the alarm clock off instead of going to the gym — but that doesn’t end deadly.”
Having a relapse doesn’t have to be the end of the world, but it can be if there is no one with the drug user to save them when they overdose.
“Because of the stigma of substance use, too many people use and then die alone,” she added.
Buckley said it is important to know that the people who died weren’t just drug users.
“My son had 10 years of struggle. But he had some really good, clean time,” she said.
“He worked, and he was loved… he was a logger; he owned his own falling company — there were so many pieces that were not about addiction at all.”
As a result of the stigma, families can feel a sense of isolation, guilt and shame, the mothers said.
Even with all the recent political and media attention on the opioid crisis, Schulz said there is still a very damaging stigma to drug use and being the parent of someone who uses drugs.
Recently, after Alberta Deputy Premier, and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman tagged Schulz on Twitter regarding her harm-reduction advocacy, Schulz said she was inundated by hateful comments.
“It is amazing what people say,” she said.
Advocating for national drug reform, however, has helped her carry on after her son’s death, she said.
Buckley said loved ones of those struggling with or who have died from addiction need to know they aren’t alone.
For more on the Squamish support group, email firstname.lastname@example.org.