Please allow me to introduce myself: My name is Sarah Gilman and I am a licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer with Lambert Funeral Home in Manchester, NH. I also hold a seat with New Hampshire’s Funeral Directors Association. Today, however, I am coming to you from a different angle: I am speaking as a “Last Responder”.
We are all familiar with the seriousness of the crippling opioid epidemic in the United States, and more so, in our tiny state of New Hampshire. I’ve been to all the seminars and trainings on how to properly and carefully handle the remains of an overdose victim, and how to empathetically assist families in their time of need. None of these forums have satisfied my desire to help. How can we prevent these untimely deaths and the grief of these families? How do we stop this crisis? What can I do to help save the human race?
We all know that drug addiction can be fatal. Those who are addicted have heard all the reasons why they should stop. They have been told by loved ones, counselors, doctors, and first responders that their next fix could be their last. As a “Last Responder,” I don’t have a chance to talk to you until it’s too late. All I can say is: “I am sorry you lost the fight.” I would like the opportunity to speak to you while you are still alive. In view of everything I have experienced, I feel compelled to shed light on the side of overdose that we, as a society, are afraid to behold. In doing so, I hope to underscore the tragic consequences of opioid use and encourage people to seek treatment.
Unfortunately, some of you may have witnessed an overdose death, and you may be familiar with the grim details. However, it’s critically important to keep the dangers of opioid use in the forefront of your awareness. The disease of addiction wants you to forget everything you have at stake when you put a drug in your body.
When my colleague and I arrive at your home or car – or perhaps the abandoned building or dumpster where your “friends” left you – it isn’t pretty. It’s usually in the middle of the night. After working twelve days in a row, three of which I’ve been on call 24/7, I am exhausted. I don’t want to meet you. I want your cheeks to be flushed with life. But you are pale with a slight tinge of grey. Every single vein in your body shines through in a deep tone of purple. You are bleeding from your nose, and perhaps from your eyes and ears as well. Your lips are white and cracked, and you are foaming from the mouth. You are stone cold.
If you are not alone, I have to speak with your family and provide my condolences. Many times, your family does not want to hear my words of sympathy. I cannot tell you how many times I have collected an inconsolable mother to leave tears on my overcoat. It is also common to be subjected to yelling or swearing. Despite being sleep deprived and experiencing a wide spectrum of emotions, I am a professional and, even more so, an empathetic human being. In my mind, every death deserves dignity. EVERY. DEATH.
I need to forget that there are tremendous occupational hazards I am potentially going to encounter.
I need to check my judgment and my projections, and ground myself.
I need to put myself in the shoes of others.
I need to show humanity, respect, and kindness.
Overdose does not discriminate; not by age, sex, race, or economic status.
When your family comes to make arrangements with me the following day, we are all drained. On so many occasions, I hear:
“We don’t want a funeral. We have exhausted all our money on treatment and we have nothing”.
Or: “We just want to get this over with”.
Sometimes families are relieved. The suffering is over. Perhaps a sibling feels that his or her high honor grades and all-star athletic achievements will no longer be overshadowed by drug addiction. But it is my heartfelt duty to reassure your loved ones that they need to grieve and mourn, and that the community (friends, family, etc.) want to help – and they need an outlet to do so. The family needs this outlet more than anyone.
On the other side of the coin, your loved ones may want to arrange a funeral and have your body in a casket for a visitation, but they are worried about who will show up at the funeral home. Most concerns regarding unwelcome visitors revolve around the people from your life who contributed to your addiction. Families ask: “What if they use in the parking lot or bathroom?” What if they overdose while they are here?” These are all very important and venerable questions; we have to reassure your family we will handle these issues so that your last moments together are meaningful and undisrupted by the chaos that has consumed your lives.
Most likely your mother has not come to the funeral home to make your arrangements. She is completely disconnected and has left this grueling task to others in your family. She doesn’t have the physical energy – or the mental capacity – to put photographs together for your video tribute. She is completely numb.
At your wake, she sees you again for the first time since your overdose, and she wails in sorrow at the sight of you. This sound is like no other sound you have ever heard – it is like nothing you can even imagine. Your skin is not soft, you are cold, and everything that made you who you were is gone. You are a shell which once carried everything your family and friends loved about you.
Your mother is angry and she harbors so much guilt. She was supposed to protect you…and now you are lying in a casket. A mother’s love for her children is like no other. We are wired to protect our children and help them survive. Our love is unconditional. Although there are many times that we don’t “like” you, or the decisions that you make, our love never dies.
If your family chooses the route of cremation, your mother sees you for the last time in an 8×3 brass container. You are just a cluster of ashes. She cannot see your face, touch your hand, or brush the hair from your eyes. She has lost the opportunity to kiss your forehead one last time.
I am witness to parents left with inexplicable grief.
I am witness to fathers asking: “What the hell do I tell my kids?”
I am witness to children who are left wondering why they don’t have any parents at all.
I am witness to grandparents who are ready to retire and head to a warmer climate, and now have to parent grandchildren who have no mother or father.
I am witness to spouses left to carry the emotional and economic burden of raising a family alone.
The unique and most unfortunate part of witnessing the aftermath of an overdose death is that everyone pushes it under the rug. An overdose completely obscures all the exceptional qualities and positive achievements a person manifests during their lifetime. One’s identity is completely hijacked.
Overdose hides in the shadows and veils itself in guilt, shame, and discomfort. Social stigma hinders the grieving process. Unlike any other loss, no one brings a casserole or brownies when a loved one dies of a stigmatized death. People keep their distance because they have no clue what to say or how to act. It is extremely isolating. When someone offers their condolences, you hear, “I am so sorry for your loss, was he sick?” YES, YES, YES he was sick! However, everyone finds a way to avoid the word “overdose”!
People may say, as we so often see in the obituary section of our local newspaper, that one has “passed away unexpectedly”. This is unacceptable. If we are ever going to get some sort of grasp on this epidemic, we need to be truthful. The problem will never be slowed down by keeping quiet. It is so important to be honest and not sugarcoat the truth. People lose their battle with addiction – just as they do with any other disease, like cancer, Alzheimer’s, or ALS. The difference with these other diseases is that we are more prepared for a death. Perhaps a doctor says: “With treatment, you will have 4 years to live, but without you will only have 6 months”. In the realm of drug addiction, there is no set timeframe for how long you have to live with or without treatment. There is absolutely no preparation. An overdose death may make people uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make the deceased matter any less.
The timeframe for grief, however, is more concrete. Your family will grieve for a lifetime…..PERIOD! The first six months are just the beginning of the emotional and physical torture. There is no “getting over it” or “moving on”. There is no salve for the heartache, no elixir for the pain, and no glue for the broken heart. Nothing can ever compensate for the missed milestones; the holidays, graduations, weddings, and births. Grief is triggered every time the phone rings; a long line of bill collectors, drug dealers, and police officers wait on the other line. The bandaid perpetually rips, re-opening a wound that will never heal. Although a person suffering from addiction thinks they are “only hurting themselves,” this assumption is so far from the truth.
An entire generation of people is irrevocably altered by just one death. Grief persists because the ripple effect lasts forever. The bleeding never stops; it pours from empty chairs, empty rooms, and empty hearts.
Your lives matter! You are not disposable! We need to do everything we can to prevent you from coming to me or any of my colleagues. Although my livelihood depends on death, I DON’T WANT YOU! My colleagues don’t want you! You have far too much to offer the world!
Take a minute to close your eyes and just listen. This is my song to you:
Sarah Gilman/ Contributor
Autumn Khavari/ Contributor