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  • Chris Hellewell

Grieving those lost to Toxic Drug Overdose

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Grief from overdose from toxic drugs is a shattering experience

Losing a loved one unexpectedly is a shattering experience, and when it is from toxic drugs it can be further complicated. 

How do you pick up the pieces, how can you make sense of this tragic loss?

Our society still largely blames substance use on individual failings and many lack the compassion needed to understand the factors that lead to substance use. It is widely known that there has been a massive increase of overdose deaths since 2016 with the widespread introduction of fentanyl into the drug supply. 

The singular tragedy of each individual who dies from toxic drugs cannot be expressed by numbers and the impact on families, partners, parents, children, and friends cannot be overstated. 

There are questions that remain. How did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Is anything being done to stop this from happening to others? 

Some have overdosed and been revived, others have lost their lives when experimenting for the first time. While there are actions being taken to try to prevent further deaths, including safe supply drugs and safe consumption sites, these are not widespread and many are still losing their lives every day. The problem is becoming increasingly global.

These deaths happen in every sector and community. It is estimated that approximately 14000 people have died from toxic drugs since April 2016 when the BC Government declared an overdose public health emergency.

In BC, First Nations people have died at a rate 6 times higher than that of non-First Nations and for First Nations women this has been even higher. Ongoing structural racism, colonialism, and the bitter legacy of Residential Schools, Indian Hospitals, land theft, displacement, disease, loss of language, customs and more have taken a heavy toll. Intergenerational trauma among Indigenous people continues to have a profound impact today.

The courage I see in clients working to heal and create a beautiful life for their children and themselves, brings me hope. 

Having worked for many years in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver I have seen first hand how devastating the overdose epidemic is. Most of the people I have worked with have lost people close to them. Some people have lost dozens of friends. So many have lost family members, partners, parents, and children.

There are many people who heroically search out the dark doorways and back alleys, day and night to check on people. They have become adept at searching for signs of life and signs of struggle, waiting to see evidence of breath, movement, or changes in skin tone. Many carry naloxone kits wherever they go, knowing that any moment someone might need to be revived. There is no doubt that the organizations and individuals who make it their mission to help substance users, have saved many lives.

Those moments when you have given someone a first and then second shot of naloxone and are waiting for a response, for some indication it is working, seem to last so much longer. I can remember anxious minutes waiting for the paramedics to arrive and not knowing if the person would survive. There have been times three or four vials were needed to finally bring someone around. Peers and front line workers have saved many lives and have borne witness to many also who did not make it. This has had a knock on effect, where people trying to help are being left exhausted and traumatized by what they have faced. 

Memorial walls have been made in different places to remember those who have passed, to remember their dreams, their smiles and gifts. To remember also what they suffered in life and how substances were a way to alleviate their pain. 

If you have lost someone to overdose, know that you are not alone. Reach out for support, tell stories of your loved one, ask questions, share your grief. This process looks different for each person and we can work with you to navigate through the different emotions you may be feeling. 

Chris Hellewell (MSW RSW) worked for 15 years in the front lines of the Downtown Eastside as a support worker and social worker and now works as a therapist providing individual counselling with Emotion Wise Counselling.

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