Families share their grief to combat stigma at annual overdose awareness day

“We need to demand safe supply for everyone,” event organizer Gail Parry says
Community members honoured those lost to Peterborough’s toxic drug crisis on International Overdose Awareness Day at Millennium Park on August 31. (Photo: Will Pearson)

To prepare for this year’s International Overdose Awareness Day, the Peterborough chapter of Moms Stop the Harm ensured there were 45 white crosses ready — one for each person known to have died of a drug poisoning in Peterborough in the first seven-and-a-half months of 2023.

By the time the day itself arrived on August 31, that number was already out of date. A 46th person had died, event organizer Gail Parry said, another sign of the unrelenting toll of Peterborough’s toxic drug crisis.

Parry, who lost her daughter to a drug poisoning in 2018 and who now leads Moms Stop the Harm locally, welcomed people to the event at Millennium Park on Thursday afternoon. “This day is dedicated to awareness about the devastating toxic opioid poisoning crisis and to help people reduce stigma and discrimination about people who use drugs,” she told those in attendance.

People whose lives have been impacted by the crisis addressed the crowd one after another during the event. Moms held back tears as they shared stories of the children they have lost.

“My son passed away from a drug poisoning overdose a year and a half ago,” said Anne O’Brien. “He pulled himself together many times until he passed away at 41.”

O’Brien said her son passed his courses at Fleming with honours and was instrumental in the growth of disc golf in Peterborough. “He had a lot of good times when he was clean and sober, and we have a lot of good memories. Thank God we still have his two children, who are a blessing to us,” she said. 

O’Brien described the efforts she and her son went through to get help for his addiction.

“Everybody was very anxious to put him on a list,” she said. But those waitlists were sometimes as long as a year or two, she said. “Well, we all know what can happen in a day, nevermind a long time like that.”

A common theme articulated by speakers at the event was the way stigma contributed to the loss of their loved ones. 

“Stigma makes people afraid to ask for help,” said Clare Keast, whose son died of a drug poisoning in 2016. “It causes them to lose self esteem which can just lead to more substance use.”

Keast said her son’s addiction was only a small part of his life. “He was a son, brother, husband and father of two little girls. And he was deeply loved by his whole family.”

Peggy Reid, Anne O’Brien and Gail Parry at Peterborough’s 2023 International Overdose Awareness Day event. (Photo: Will Pearson)

Moms shared how the stigma facing drug users can continue to impact families even after their loved ones die. Hearing judgemental language directed toward drug users makes the grieving process more difficult, they said.

But Parry said it “helps a lot” to gather at events like International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD).

“It’s good to be able to share,” said O’Brien. “Knowing we’re not the only ones takes away the guilt and shame and frustration.” 

Parry started organizing outdoor events for IOAD in 2020. Before that, smaller services to remember and grieve those lost to drug poisonings were led by Christian Harvey at St John’s Anglican Church.

Parry attended one of those services. Her daughter died on August 11, 2018 — just a few weeks before that year’s IOAD. “On the 31st, when I was a mess, I went to Christian Harvey’s small service at St. John’s,” she remembered. “And I really liked going there. But when COVID hit, they couldn’t have it inside no more. So that’s what made me bring it outside.”

In the four years Parry has been organizing the event, she has watched as the number of crosses on the lawn has grown year after year. With the drug supply in Peterborough becoming increasingly toxic, the number of people dying from drug poisonings grows. And the local observance of IOAD has grown too. There are “so many more moms,” Parry said. “So many more losses.”

Speaking at this year’s event, Carolyn King called it “heartbreaking” that it continues to grow each year. But increased participation in IOAD events may also signal an increased willingness to challenge the stigma associated with drug use. King remembered the first observations of IOAD in Peterborough as “a very small collection of people who were hesitant to be public with their grief.”

“We’ve had a huge turnout today,” King noted. “It’s amazing that we have…created a community in which we can grieve collectively and we can name what has happened to our community and our loved ones and our families.” 

“We can name systemic stigmas that are creating barriers to access to equitable healthcare,” said King, who manages the safer supply pilot project at the 360 Degree Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic. King said that harm reduction services saved her life when she used substances, and that without them, she wouldn’t be alive today to push for solutions.

Parry called for an expansion of programs like the one King manages. “We need to demand safe supply for everyone,” she said. 

Various social service and harm reduction agencies were present at the event to share information about the supports they offer to people who use drugs.

This August marked five years since Gail Parry’s daughter died. She said living without her hasn’t gotten any easier. “I miss my daughter so much,” she said. “I think as time goes on, we miss them more and more. I thought it would be easier and I’d get stronger, but no.”


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