I’d never read an autopsy report before – many had advised me not to. But in my state of shock and denial, I still needed proof that my daughter Erin was actually gone forever. With my hands on either side of the report, I felt my fingers clench and my nails dig into the table over and over again as I read through the clinical details outlining her cause of death: opioid overdose with her anxiety and pain medication trumping the trace poison fentanyl that resulted in her brain no longer capable of telling her body to breathe.
Medical examiners use the term “unremarkable”, meaning there was no obvious indicator that could be remarked upon when examining each part of the anatomy. I think I found that to be the most painful and offensive word to read because my daughter was truly remarkable in every way.
Erin was a bright light, full of curiosity, fun, laughter and caring. Her empathy and innocence is how she was so easily lured by a sociopathic and accomplished human sex trafficker when she was just barely 20 years old. He played on her kind heart with lies and subterfuge, leading to her spending two brutal years in a hostage situation where her bright light was extinguished through his horrific and violent abuse. The immediate and ongoing drugging to keep her (and other victims) under his control, resulted in her mind and body coming to a fully addictive state.
When Erin was located and rescued, she came home to us alive but a shell of her former self. It took us several months to learn how to live and communicate with her as she was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. This is a debilitating condition, keeping the sufferer in a constant state of fear, anxiety, night terrors, diminished coping skills and an absent ability to trust. But we had no idea of the depths of her addiction. She was on so many anti-anxiety prescriptions and sleep aids that they were masking what she was really hiding from us. It was a barely-survived overdose on a street drug that took our blinders off – she was in need of more than just counselling for her trauma.
Erin worked hard at her recovery in treatment centres, putting her own struggles aside at times when fellow patients needed a friend. We celebrated with new hope each time she succeeded. But the hungry ghost, as termed by Dr. Gabor Mate in his book, was always lurking in the shadows, waiting for a trigger and there were many of those that came with the type of brutal and prolonged trauma she had experienced.
This beautiful girl: artist, poet and heartfelt friend to people and animals began to disappear as the addiction gained a stronger and stronger hold. At the age of 31, she died alone in her apartment – not with intention but as another victim of the ever growing opioid crisis.
In shock and grief, I spent most of my time examining what I could have done differently and wishing I could just die too so I could be with her. My job as a mother, to protect my daughter, was a fail in my mind. Shortly after her death and desperately seeking some sort of connection with Erin I went to see a recommended medium and it was when she said that Erin was asking her to tell me “Mom, it’s not easy here but it’s so much easier than it was there” that I realized and accepted she was no longer in pain. I knew she was adjusting to being in the spirit realm, would find peace and I had to work on continuing to live in this physical realm – without her. I was forever altered, feeling empty in my soul and learning how to adamantly tell people that it was okay for me to NOT be okay.
I began to slowly acknowledge as the long, empty and pain filled months passed, that I was desperately in need to reach out somewhere. I was pushing people away, telling myself that they just “did not get it”. This could not possibly compare to losing a spouse, a parent, a sibling – a child is a physical part of a mother’s DNA and we shared millions of our cells. Losing my daughter was a swift and brutal rendering of what felt like flesh from bone, heart shattered like glass, helpless, defenseless and my body was an empty shell. Who could possibly understand what was left of me?
As mothers, we do not get over it, move on from it, or even move through this kind of world-gone-wrong grief. Never should a child’s death precede a parent’s – it’s just not the natural order of things. So where was I to go from there, with that knowledge? I needed to learn how to integrate my grief into my changed life so that it is was an accepted part of me; felt every moment but not crushing and controlling me. I had to learn to live again. I was at a crossroads, the albatross of grief I carried, keeping me anchored, and all I could do was turn and wonder which way would lead to healing.
Synchronicity is an amazing thing. With anxious trepidation of triggering myself into another round of amplified and debilitating grief, I attended my first public event, with my closest friend in tow for support. It was a feature documentary film made to highlight the need to address the opioid crisis in our community and country. Something still made me go to see it and perhaps meet others walking my painful path. It was there that a chance meeting led to my discovery of Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH) . I searched MSTH when I got home and learned the mission behind this group was advocating for changes to failed drug policies. In that moment of early, raw grief, I thought to myself “too little, too late” for my daughter but I couldn’t deny that perhaps I was sensing a tiny flicker of hope and purpose.
On the the MSTH website, I clicked on a link to Healing Hearts of Victoria – supporting those who had lost loved ones to substance use related death. I had shied away from typical grief groups mainly due to the stigma that comes with losing a loved one to drugs, but I also desperately needed to share a space with other grieving mothers and family members. So I attended my first meeting and was enveloped in tender, caring support where I could say what I wanted, it didn’t matter how “crazy” it sounded and I could cry uncontrollably without feeling embarrassed or awkward. I had found a space to release it.
It’s been just over two years of continuing to learn to live with my grief and I do now see a light of hope and trust that I thought I’d never see or feel again. I support Moms Stop The Harm and their initiative because now I see that a health-based system is the only way to save lives. Punishing the addict because of the disease is cruel and counter-productive. Portugal decriminalized personal possession of drugs in 2001 and has experienced phenomenal success in saving lives. We need to look at this model more closely.
I ignore the stigma that still rears it’s ugly head at times but I do see less and less of it as the public becomes more educated on the complex understanding of addiction in today’s world. I am grateful now to feel more compassion plus I have more patience and less judgement as I understand things are not always as they seem. And I less expect the worst now because the worst has already happened for me. Erin had asked me once, “Mom, what are you afraid of?” And I told her, “Of you dying.”
I can only take baby steps forward and use the knowledge I have gained to see what I can contribute. I have hope that improvements in our judicial system, when it comes to treating the addicted, result in someone’s child not dying alone and in pain, leaving another parent destroyed, struggling to make sense of such a horrific and personal tragedy.
Yes, it is too little, too late to save Erin but I do know that if my daughter had had access to affordable, long-term trauma and addiction treatment, she may be alive today. She would not have suffered only from the pain of addiction but also from the shame of hiding it and the loneliness of dying from it. A safe place to go, with safe drugs, surrounded by dedicated treatment professionals is the best and only hope to save lives.
My slowly healing heart is now able to speak out and I’m not alone. I am immensely in awe of these dedicated women behind Moms Stop The Harm, who found a way to take their grief and turn it into a purpose that can change the world and keep our children, mothers, fathers, cousins, siblings and friends from being Gone Too Soon.
Four Broken Moms (Feature Image) and Grieving Together – Rick Collins Photography
Empty Soul – Totally Buffalo:
Wanda and Erin Hug – photo courtesy of Wanda Lambeth