The grief associated with an overdose death is complex. In addition to coming to terms with the loss, grieving friends and family often face fear of judgement and stigma anytime someone asks, 'How did they die?'. We all want our loved ones to be remembered for what they did when they lived, not what they did when they died. This simple, innocent question can turn grief into shame, and is a situation all too common among those grieving an overdose death. In hope's of addressing the pervasive stigma associated with addiction and overdose, Madeline Taylor shared her story with us.
Madeline Taylor is a Toronto-based digital storyteller who lost her father to an overdose in 2019. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a BSc in Psychology and Women & Gender Studies, only a few weeks after her father passed away. Madeline now works with digital mediums like photography, film, illustration and animation to communicate creatively and connect people with each other and their experiences. Madeline generously shared her story of loving, remembering, and grieving someone who struggled with addiction.
My earliest memories of my dad are of him lifting my sister and I up onto his shoulders, dancing together in early Sunday morning light to the sound of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Baby”. I can see my dad’s silk pyjamas moving to the music as he swayed with my little sister held above his head. The air smells like sunshine and leftover breakfast. I can feel the beat of the music move from our stereo system through my body.
I remember laughter.
It’s been 16 months since my dad passed away, and my memories of him come in flashes. The sandals he wore in the summertime. His quiet, sad smile. His big brown eyes that stare back at me every time I look into a mirror. His hands that were always warm, but never clammy. The way he walked, his feet slightly turned out. His belly laugh. A lived-in confidence. My name tattooed on the underside of his forearm and my sister’s name tattooed on the other. The way his voice cracked when he apologized for something he was truly sorry about. A delightful flamboyance that would appear when he was excited.
The last memories of my dad haunt me: my mother’s face about to break the news, his empty apartment, a funeral home, clothes never again to be worn by him, saying goodbye to stillness that only resembled the man who once danced in his pyjamas, and last words whispered but unheard:
“I forgive you.”
“I love you.”
My dad was a father, a son, a brother, a husband, a boyfriend, a friend, a mentor, a musician, an artist... and he was also an addict. On March 29th, 2019 my dad died of an unintentional fentanyl overdose. He died alone in his bedroom. In a bathroom, a few short steps from his bedroom, an unused Nalaxone kit sat on a shelf above the toilet.
My dad was a full and complex person and though his story closes with addiction, he was always much more than that. He was naturally curious - and I have fond memories of flipping through the pages of his very large National Geographic collection. He loved music and he shared this passion with his daughters as soon as he could, ensuring that we received a fulsome musical education from the comfort of his Volkswagen Jetta. Drives to daycare frequently involved the works of Lynrd Skynrd, Coldplay, The Cure, Metallica, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and many others.
Later in his life, he played the electric bass in a band of his own and often chose the part of lead singer. Through various rehab programs, he reconnected with visual art mediums and would proudly send me photos of his art projects: sometimes pyrography or abstract oil paintings depicting nature scenes. He was an avid outdoorsman and took time off work for family camping trips every summer, instilling a love for nature in both his daughters.
Over the years, he held many jobs: an account executive, a car salesman, a manual labourer... and dreamed of many more; a radio broadcaster, a hair stylist, a police officer like his dad or maybe a chef. He loved to dress well and could’ve been a personal stylist, often knowing exactly what would look incredible on someone. As his addiction enforced changes in his lifestyle, he still found ways to dress himself fashionably and we would frequently brag about our latest thrift store finds to each other. He was devastated by the toll his addiction had taken on my sister and me, and would often cry during our weekly phone calls. He felt he had missed out on being a father... and in a lot of ways, he had. He often spoke of the love he still felt for my mother, despite their divorce.
My dad went to his first in-patient rehabilitation program when I was 5 years old. Over the next 17 years, he would go to many more. Each relapse would take him farther away from us and the person he was deep inside. Despite this, my dad was always the kind of person who made you feel special and known, and he was deeply loved by all the people his life had touched over his 47 years on earth.
He was so loved. People who struggle with addiction almost always are. They are people who need help and support. The stigma that prevails around addiction, opioid use and harm-reduction efforts contribute to the harsh realities that addicts face and the isolation that families experience when a loved one loses their fight against addiction.
The days, weeks and months following my dad’s death are a hazy, gut-wrenching blur. My grieving process was disrupted by the fact that I had just landed my first full-time “adult” job and was in the final month of completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Nothing in the world felt right knowing my dad was gone. I walked around the city, attending to my responsibilities, riding the subway, meeting up with friends and for many months, I felt absolutely numb. More than a year later, there are still some days where my dad’s death does not feel real.
He was there and then he wasn’t. My dad was a person, walking around the world and then he was gone. I am not the first or the last person to lose a parent. However, losing a loved one to an overdose is different than losing a loved one to cancer or a car accident. There is an assumption of guilt when you tell someone your dad died of an overdose. When sharing details of my loss, I often wonder the associations people make with the word “overdose”? Dirty. Homelessness. Criminal. Poverty. Irresponsible.
You don’t think of a beautiful man who had two daughters. A man who had dreams. A man who wanted to get better. A man who loved and was loved. A man who danced on Sunday mornings in his silk pyjamas.
Maybe my dad’s story will change how you think about the word ‘overdose’. He did and was so many wonderful, incredible things throughout his life. Please don’t judge him by the last thing he ever did.