There’s no good news in the world of drug overdoses, but International Overdose Awareness Day reminds us that sometimes a glimmer of light can be dragged from tragedy, writes Julie Houghton.
‘My baby boy, I miss you terribly every day…’ begins the anguished missive from a woman identified as Sandy*. ‘We held your hand for two days, praying for you to come back to us. Unfortunately, we had to let you go. It’s like a bad dream I keep hoping to wake up from.’
Sandy’s moving tribute to her 22-year-old son Kyle who died of an accidental overdose in 2014 is just one of hundreds you’ll find on www.overdoseday.com. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2014, there were an estimated 207,400 drug-related deaths across the world, and more than 2,000 of those were in Australia.
Wednesday 31 August 2016 marks the 16th International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD), an initiative started in 2001 by Salvation Army community development worker Sally Finn as a way to help those left behind when a loved one suffers a fatal overdose.
‘For mums and dads, who haven’t had much to do with the drug scene, this day is a non-threatening opportunity to speak the truth about what has happened to their families… People often say the commemoration helped them experience a sense of peace,’ Sally says.
Sally’s 2001 idea has grown in the last 15 years to become an event of international significance, as drug overdoses are not confined to any country, nationality or demographic. (Since 2012, the IOAD has been organised by the Penington Institute, a non-profit Australian public health body which took over from Salvation Army Crisis Services in St Kilda.)
In Australia on 31 August there are more than 20 different events being held to commemorate IOAD. They range from morning and afternoon teas, drop-in information events and seminars, to sausage sizzles, tribute trees and remembrance ceremonies.
Across the world, there are IOAD commemorations in Africa, Canada, India, Pakistan Britain, New Zealand and Scandinavia.
If you happen to be in Ghana on 31 August you can join the March Against Overdose. Or you can attend prayer and memorial services in India and Norway, visit the memorial tree with a special card in New Zealand and stay for a soup and bread lunch. Scotland is having remembrance ceremonies and education booths, and across America there are candlelit vigils, walls of remembrance and guest speakers.
Having events like this normalises the experience of loss for bereaved families, as well as educating and uniting the community around them.
According to Salvation Army territorial alcohol and other drugs (AOD) project director, Kathryn Wright, people who have lost loved ones can find it difficult to express their grief because of the stigma surrounding drug users.
‘Families and friends often feel unable to speak about the circumstances of their loved one’s death. They feel they can’t speak about their loved one in case someone asks how they died,’ Kathryn explains.
As well as giving bereaved people a chance to bear witness to their lost loved ones, having IOAD also allows churches, community organisations, hospitals, community health centres and user groups to educate people about the dangers of overdoses and substance misuse.
Salvation Army service development officer, Debra Little, says Australians need to be aware that there is still a stigma and a negative stereotype around drug use.
‘In our Salvation Army community, that’s not the case, thanks to our non-discriminatory services and events such as the IOAD. The whole grief process is honoured,’ says Debra.
Kathryn adds ‘We look at the circumstances of addiction, the society in which it flourishes, the background and reasons for use, and say “Isn’t this a tragedy? Society could be so much better.”’
While IOAD commemorates lives lost and educates people about the issues, the website’s tribute board (which can be found at www.overdoseday.com/tributes) encourages grieving families to tell society a different story about their child.
Read through the testimonies and you’ll soon realise that here is a space that acknowledges loss when the world may not feel sympathetic, and tries to help others avoid the same tragedy of lives lost to drug overdoses.
The platform also provides something far-reaching and surprising.
While it was in the midst of unimaginable pain that Sandy had posted her tribute to Kyle, she left a message that would resonate not only on the testimony board, but in the lives of four strangers.
‘But through the miracle of organ donation you live on in four amazingly lucky people,’ she wrote. ‘Until we meet again.’
*First name used to protect identity
One of the ways to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) is to wear the special silver badge, which is the symbol of awareness of overdose and its effects. Wearing silver can signify the loss of someone cherished or demonstrate support to those bearing a burden of grief. In a nutshell, wearing silver celebrates life.