The last birthday I celebrated with Emily was her 21st.
We went to lunch, and I bought her a massive piece of cake. She looked anything but healthy—skinner than she’d ever been—and pail. She complained of not feeling well. Less than two months later, she was dead. While I knew something wasn’t “right” with my daughter, I never imagined she would die. I never thought smart, middle-class kids living in a rural state would be using heroin. I hadn’t heard much about fentanyl before she died, even though I was a news reporter who often covered the opioid crisis. Of course, we all know better now, or at least we should.
Looking back now, it appears that the universe was trying to prepare me for the inevitable. In August of 2016, I filed a report called “Rise in Opioid Overdoses.” I sat in bartender and single mom, Liana Bernard’s small ranch house just two weeks after her 25-year-old daughter, Kristen, died of a heroin overdose. I never even mentioned fentanyl in the story. No one in my area was talking about fentanyl in 2016. Liana’s grief seemed to swallow up everything in her living room and seeped into my own heart. It made me squirm in my chair, uncomfortably, as I sat across from her on the couch and questioned her about her daughter’s addiction and overdose death. She looked stunned, totally in shock. At the time, I remember feeling surprised she was even talking to me, But she had a message to share. She told me, “It’s in the good neighborhoods, it’s in the bad neighborhoods–it’s right around the corner. It’s everywhere.”
I now know the absolute truth in Liana’s words. Even though I had been concerned about Emily and what she was doing for years, I didn’t think she would ever use heroin. But why not? Kristen went to the same “good” high school as my other children. She was an artist who loved to read and write books. Just like Emily, Kristen was talented and sweet. Bernard shared how hard it was to get Kristen help and impossible to get her any kind of long-term treatment. Her job didn’t offer insurance, and when she tried to get her into a 90-day state program, no beds were available. Liana was a warrior for Kristen, constantly trying to save the life of her adult daughter.
“I can imagine a lot of parents doing what I do–where you just sit home and you go check on them to make sure they’re breathing–you chase people out of your yard–it’s a battle it’s literally a battle. Unless somebody has room or the means to bring them somewhere where they can be kept and held, there’s nothing you can do.”– Laura Bernard, Mother of Kristen, who died of a heroin overdose in 2016
Nearly two years later, I was interviewing Liana again, this time about the circumstances surrounding Kristen’s death and how she died in a group full of people using heroin, who were too scared of getting in trouble themselves to call for help immediately. The news story was on Good Samaritan Laws, which can save lives because people who report an overdose have immunity from prosecution. Still, even though my family was planning an intervention to get Emily into treatment, I thought she was smoking weed and taking Xanax. I didn’t think she was at great risk for overdose. That very night my daughter died. Seven months later, I would go back and write that story. I saw myself in the video, hours before my life would change forever, and realized Liana and I were the same. Liana told me she would drive from her house to the home where her daughter was getting high and died and would time how long it would have taken her to get there if someone had called her. It would have taken her two minutes, only two minutes! Maybe she could have saved Kristen. She will never know.
Today Emily should be turning 25, the same age that Kristen was when she died. There was no reason for Kristen to die, nor was there any reason for Emily to die. Emily was alone in the bedroom of her apartment. The heroin she injected was laced with enough fentanyl to kill at least six people. For the first time since her death, I am angry as hell. I’ve experienced many different emotions since Emily’s death, but anger hasn’t been one. I had to wish my daughter a happy would-be 25th birthday at the cemetery today, and bitter tears stung my eyes. There is no reason she shouldn’t be here at 25. It’s all so senseless. The fact that overdose deaths are up again, thanks to an illegal drug supply tainted with fentanyl, is also extremely senseless. When Emily died, 192 people were dying of an overdose every day. Now that number has jumped to 290 deaths a day. Even calling it overdose isn’t accurate. Most of these cases are drug-induced homicide. I’m so furious about all of it! I’m also frustrated, not only that I don’t have my child, but hundreds of thousands of parents, like Liana, don’t either.
They say anger is a stage of grief. A close friend of mine gave me a plate after Emily died in May of 2018 and told me to break it when I feel that anger. I have never broken that plate, but I have held onto it. The sound of shattering porcelain may offer some relief on the day my firstborn child should have turned 25.
Faith, Hope & Courage,