“Time, they say you heal all wounds, but they don’t talk about how you destroy all that’s good in the world, how you turn beauty into ash.”

—Raffi, Collateral Beauty

Shortly before my oldest daughter, Emily, died, I watched the movie, Collateral Beauty, starring Will Smith. Smith’s character lost his daughter and the film portrays how moments of beauty can come from even the worst tragedy. In my writing, I attempt to look for the love and beauty shining through the pain. Sometimes though, it can be difficult to see anything other than collateral damage. Never has the ripple effect of one overdose death stood out as much as it has in the past week. 

I first met Connie McDougall through Facebook messenger after Emily died. She was angry, very angry. She blamed Emily for her son, 21-year-old Cole Thompson’s, overdose death. I was confused by her words. I knew that Cole overdosed and died three weeks before Emily. At the time I didn’t know heroin laced with fentanyl killed Cole; only the fact that someone in Emily’s circle of “friends” (i.e. fellow users) had overdosed. That had prompted me to leap into action. Cole’s death was the reason I urged my family to plan an intervention. Before we were able to carry it through, Emily died in the very same way as Cole. 

Cole & Connie

Connie claimed that Emily had provided Cole with the drug that killed him. I didn’t think my daughter was dealing, but really what did I know for sure? However, a few days later, Connie contacted me again and said she wanted to help with my efforts with Emily’s Hope. She told me it didn’t matter how Cole got the fentanyl—that both of our children were dead—and she wanted to honor Cole by getting involved. One of the first things she did was donate artwork to the Emily’s Hope Art Show in April of 2019. I can still see her decked out in fancy white dress to get up on stage during the event with Cole’s father, Randy. They shared Cole’s story and how losing him had impacted their lives. Connie’s words were powerful. I looked around as she spoke and saw tears in the audience’s eyes.

She also had t-shirts made for the Emily’s Hope Poker Run later that summer. We would talk occasionally and I would always ask her how she was doing. She was honest: not well. Connie told me how she had a deep soul connection to Cole and surviving his death felt next to impossible for her. I always encouraged her to get involved in our efforts. I told her serving others helped me cope. I know that is what she wanted to do as well. She had a big heart, even though it was broken, like mine.

When the Chicago drug dealers were sentenced to prison for supplying the fentanyl-laced heroin to both Cole, Emily and others, Connie was there in the courtroom by my side. A short time later, we learned that it was not Emily who sold Cole the fentanyl-laced drugs provided by those dealers. Aaron Wodzinski, whom Emily started dating a few weeks before her death, admitted to using Emily’s phone to make the drug deal with Cole. Aaron was now facing charges in federal court. I asked Connie if she wanted to talk about her loss publicly for a news story. She agreed and shared her story of joining the millions of grandparents raising grandchildren because of the opioid crisis; children whose parents were either addicted or dead. 

“I’m very fortunate to have her. It’s a piece of Cole. She acts a lot like him. She brings me peace,” Connie told me about her granddaughter, Avalon, who was born six weeks after Cole died. 

Connie McDougall and her granddaughter, Avalon, born six weeks after her son’s overdose death

Aaron ended up pleading guilty to federal charges of distribution leading to death. Connie was anxious to testify at his sentencing. Connie’s testimony was hard, even for me, to hear. Connie, who had struggled with bipolar disorder, told the judge in Aaron’s case that she couldn’t work for months and had attempted to complete suicide twice. The judge sentenced Aaron to 20 years in prison. Aaron recently got married and had a newborn baby— more lives disrupted; more collateral damage. 

Following the sentencing, Connie told me: 

“Cole suffered with addictions. So did Aaron. The biggest thing I’m hoping is that he can turn his life around and do something to educate others about what addiction does to your life; just to be there to help other people. I will always have to live without Cole. But I feel for his family. I feel for his newborn baby. And I am working on forgiveness and letting go of the anger that I have been struggling with for so long.” 

Still reeling from hearing about Connie’s suicide attempts in court, I grabbed onto her arm, “Remember,” I said, “you’re still here for a reason. You have your granddaughter and your other son who need you. Please, as long as you’re still breathing that means there is a purpose for your life.” 

Connie nodded and hugged me. Then she thanked me for all I had done to try to tell Cole’s story. I told her again that helping others really helped me the most and that together we would save lives in our children’s names. 

Aaron was sentenced the first week in January, 2021. The first week of February, I heard from Cole’s dad that Connie had completed suicide. The news hit me like a punch in the gut. The thought I cannot get out of my mind is about all the collateral damage from these overdose deaths. To most people, it’s just another statistic on the news: 194 people dying of overdose every day. But what about their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers? What happens when suddenly an A-bomb goes off in your family? 

Connie decided to join Cole, leaving another gaping hole in the lives of her husband, 16-year-old son, granddaughter and many more… so much collateral damage. I spoke to one of her friends, who told me he received her last text. She thanked him for his family’s support, but said that she was leaving to be with Cole. She sent him that text after he had gone to bed and he didn’t see it until the next morning. By then, it was too late. 

If only the dealers who are lacing drugs with fentanyl could truly understand all of the harm they are inflicting when one of their customers dies. The victims are not just another “junkie” or “druggie,” They are someone’s beloved son or daughter. Even if mothers and fathers can find the strength to carry on, the remnants of our shattered lives are the collateral damage.

Rest in peace with your beloved Cole, dear Connie. 

Faith, Hope & Courage,

Angela

Read Connie McDougall’s obituary here.