I took a couple of weeks off from writing my column in December. I wish I could say that I spent that time sunning myself on a tropical island, but really I was concentrating on penning something I had never written before: a eulogy.
Since I started at The Item six months ago, rarely has a week gone by that an overdose hasn’t been listed in the police log or that a young person who “died suddenly” or was “stricken at home” has not appeared on the obituaries page.
Sadly, it also is rare that the names and faces featured in those obituaries are unfamiliar to me. Childhood friends, former classmates, relatives of friends, and other acquaintances have graced page A2 in recent months, after succumbing to fatal drug overdoses. While rarely revealed within the copy of the obituary, the drug that cut their young lives short is heroin.
But even with those dozens of familiar names I’ve seen in print and the numerous stories Item staff has written on the epidemic tearing through our communities and our lives at an increasingly alarming rate, I’m embarrassed to admit that the gravity of it all had yet to really hit home with me — that is until last month when it literally hit home.
While en route to a holiday party I received a call from my uncle asking if I could come to his house. I anticipated one of his usual funny quips to follow when I asked why. The response I received was anything but humorous. It was devastating.
“Joseph is dead,” is all he said, and he needn’t have said anything more.
My cousin Joe, eight years my junior and my aunt and uncle’s only son, was found alone in his Peabody apartment a few hours earlier. State Police on the scene said he had likely died even hours before that. He was just 31.
State troopers respond to all unattended deaths in every Massachusetts community (except Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield, where local police departments handle death investigations within their respective jurisdictions). My cousin was just one of 130 suspected fatal heroin overdoses in Essex County and of 755 statewide that were responded to in 2015.
If those figures don’t startle you, the fact that the average age of last year’s victims was approximately 36 should. Of those 755 victims, 591 were male, 164 female.
Some people who read my cousin’s obituary, or those of any of the 754 others who died in Massachusetts last year, or maybe even who are reading this column now may think, “Why should we care? He/she was just another addict who chose to stick a needle in their arm.”
If you share those sentiments, please think about this: For every person who dies of an overdose, there are countless family members and friends whose lives have been, or are being, devastated due to the ripple effect caused by addiction as they struggle to save the lives of their loved ones battling with the disease of addiction, and are often left feeling guilt-ridden and wondering if they could have done more to help.
For some addicts, there is hope to reclaim life through treatment. For others, like Joe, the story tragically ends in death. And without more proactive approaches that treat addiction as a public health issue and not a crime, like that taken by the Lynn Police’s Behavioral Health Unit featured in Monday’s Item, groundbreaking policies adopted by the Gloucester Police Department last summer and others that are emerging locally, the death toll in our communities will continue to rapidly rise.
If programs such as those turn a single life around and spare just one family from experiencing the grief and excruciating pain of losing a loved one to the disease of addiction, then they are worth every effort of implementing.
Beth Bresnahan is the CEO of The Item. She can be reached at: [email protected]