They say that time heals all wounds, but with grief, it can feel everlasting. My name is Cassandra and at the age of 12, on July 29th 2014, I lost my father to a drug poisoning*. I can't fully explain the impact this has had on me, because for most of my life, the stigma of substance use encouraged me to do everything I could to prevent the outside from looking in, ensuring I didn’t talk about it. But today, I’m talking.
*A Drug Poisoning is when a person takes a drug and amount of drug they think they know, but another drug has been added to it without the person knowing-the drug has been poisoned. Learn about the signs and reversal here.
My dad had a very difficult childhood, and as a result, struggled with mental health and substance use for most of his life. Growing up, I was ashamed and unable to tell my friends the truth about where my dad was, what he did for work, or when I would see him next – knowing that he spent most of his time institutionalized for his substance use, and I would not know when I would see him next.
Often, people question, “why don’t they just go to treatment*”, which my dad did many times throughout my life, including before his death.
Prior to my father’s death, he had entered another rehabilitation facility in BC. He had completed the 30 day program and decided it was time to come back to Calgary – his home. Initially, he was doing so well, but then days turned to weeks, and I was unable to get a hold of him, I wondered if he was okay, where he was staying, what he was up to and most importantly when I would be able to see him again.
*National Institue on Drug Use, The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, Health 2019
Time went by, and I began to feel angry that he disappeared, not realizing that he was feeling ashamed for his struggles with substances. I know now that he didn’t want to cause any more hurt and pain and felt that I would be better off not having contact with him. A few days before he passed away he tried calling me, I was still feeling resentment and felt I had nothing to say, so I let it ring. He left a voicemail, but I deleted it before I thought about listening to what he had to say, which remains one of my biggest regrets to this day. I wish I had answered and said, “I love you dad”.
A few days later I woke up to the call that my dad was gone. I was in denial, disbelief, shock and felt my heart was physically broken in half. I had learned afterwards that he spent his final days praying and sleeping in a mosque, during the holy month of Ramadan asking for forgiveness and guidance. He felt he had no home to go to, but he carried his faith with him right till the end, and that is something that I will always admire about my father. The night he left the mosque, was his last night here on earth. My father was only 42 when he died from drug toxicity, about to turn 43 only three days later, and I was only 12.
At 12 years old, it's painful to endure the loss of a parent you longed for most of your life. At 12 years old, it is even more painful to know that a toxic drug supply is the reason you won't ever get a future with your parent and that you have been robbed of all the “what ifs” that could have eventually happened. I felt the stigma of my father’s substance use my entire childhood, and so did he, but it was amplified when he died. People’s judgments and my own shame made it hard for me to explain how my dad died when asked. An innocent question, “how did your dad die”, led to a spiral of emotions in which for the longest time I covered up and said, “he passed of natural causes, in his sleep”. I was unable to admit that I lost my father to a drug toxicity, partially because I didn’t want to believe it myself, but mostly because I didn’t want the world to judge my father in his final moments. I wanted him to be remembered for the person he was to those around him and all the good that he did...
My dad was human, he had a story, and he also had a purpose. He was not his childhood trauma, his addiction or his criminal history that was given him because of his challenges, nor was he a father who didn’t love or care for his daughters. He was brave, caring, empathetic and giving and I could only wonder what proper supports, a safe drug supply and some long-term resources would have done to help him-I will never know. But what I do know is that stigma and the toxic drug supply are dangerous, and are taking away people that we love-it's taking parents, and leaving so many youths bereaved. If my dad hadn’t taken a pill laced with fentanyl, he would still be here today.
DYK: Consistently, the most common age of death from drug toxicity in Canada is 30-59, and the average age of a first-time parent is 31. Although Canada is not tracking the number of parents that have died from the crisis, some areas in the USA have preliminary numbers that suggest up to 50% of deaths are of parents.
Although I feel relieved that my dad no longer has to struggle anymore and can finally have the peace he has always deserved today, the judgement of society continues to shout that my father’s death is considered marginal- as if somehow, he deserved or wanted to die, and all because his death was associated with substances. It is hard to fully understand and grieve when everyone- politicians, community, family-has an opinion about what you should feel towards the person who uses substances and how they should have done things differently. The stigma that prevails around substance use and harm reduction efforts contribute to the harsh realities that substance users face, as well as the complex grief, shame, and isolation that youth experience when a parent dies."
As a society, we keep telling people who use substances and their families what they need to do better, or more or less of, but as a society, we need to consider what do we collectively need to do differently to make sure people who use substances are safe, and can ask for help and receive support without shame.
My father's life is not defined by his substance use. I know this now, and I pray, like him, that others will be remembered for their soul, their gratitude and their good deeds. I still have so much grief and I know it's a lifelong journey; It isn't easy, and the pain may not ever go away or feel lighter, but I do know that there are brighter days in between, somewhere.
To my peers who lost a parent you love to an overdose or toxic drug supply, there may be times when you feel like you're getting nowhere, and that the noise of the world is too loud to let you grieve. Know you are not alone-Nobody can take your experiences and story away from you, or the love you have for your parent.
If nobody told you yet, I'm here to remind you that your feelings are valid, that you matter, and so did they.
Join me virtually, on August 30th, from 6:30pm MST to 8:00pm MST, on the eve of International Overdose Awareness Day, as we connect and remember our parents. The session will be guided by Nevada, a holistic centred Indigenous Orientated Therapist who will share in a grounding land-based practice.
Register by clicking here .
Ways to support a youth who has lost a parent to the toxic drug supply:
1. Don’t undermine the relationship between the youth and the parent. Many youth love their parent and are therefore grieving the loss of someone they love, just like any other loss.
2. Understand that grief looks different for everyone, as grief is not linear: it can look like intense anger and rage, where guilt and shame make simple events and conversations unbearable; it can be prolonged quietness or disconnection that looks like not listening or appearing to care, avoiding or ignoring family and friends, or missing school.
3. Ask what they need: Do not assume you know what the youth needs, ask.
4. Create space for grieving by simply listening: pay attention to what they say and what they don't say: can they trust you? will you shame or blame them or their parent? Will you let them be angry, sad, and grieve without judgment?
6. Being mindful of the use of language: refrain from saying addict/junkie/ deadbeat parent etc. that can prevent the youth from trusting to share how they feel.
Author: Cassandra, FASC youth co-lead, children's rights advocate
Resources and Supports for youth and young adults: https://www.familyadvocacysupportcentre.ca/youth