Editor’s note: This commentary is by Brenda Siegel, who is the executive and artistic director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She was a candidate in the Democratic primary for governor in 2018 and is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane.
I spent the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, doing a practice called Tashlikh, a practice that has you go to the river or a water source and throw into it bread, though I threw instead sticks, rocks and leaves as not to disrupt the water source. In my Jewish community, the tradition is that as you throw it, you think of something that you need to let go of and you ask “god” or the river, or whatever you believe in, to help you let it go. I did this as a meditation, with in mind the need to release some of the weight of the grief. I have experienced too much loss to think I can just make it go away, but some of the weight can be lifted. In this practice, I let go of little things, like how hard my dog is, and big things, like 23 years of loss.
On Sunday Oct. 13th, it was 23 years since my brother Johnathon’s death. A death that still hurts and has become harder with the death of his son. It is challenging to think about how the outcome for Kaya and for us may have been different had he survived on that Sunday. My family hid from our community that he had died while using heroin. We were ashamed. It was a time when no one died that way, or rather people did, but no one talked about it.
Oct. 11 was the last time I talked to Johnathon. I forgot to say “I love you” as I got off the phone. I had also talked to my nephew, Kaya in that conversation who was four and a half years old and was passionately describing how he would just walk to Tennessee, where I lived, to visit me. When challenged at how long that would take, he said “I will just kick the cars in half to get there faster.” I can still hear his little voice with no awareness of what was to befall on his life or ours. His innocence with no knowledge of the trauma that would come to him.
When we talk about prevention, we can not leave absent trauma and when we talk about trauma we can not leave absent opioid death. There is intergenerational trauma occurring right now as people’s parents die from this disease. To ignore this, is to create another generation of trauma. To not try to save their parents is a statement to these kids about their own worth. My family watched in real time how this trauma impacts a child. The trajectory of all of our lives changed with the death of my brother. We would all have to learn to function broken, with unfixable cracks in our foundation. Untimely death is not something you get over, you learn to survive it. Believe me, a great deal of effort goes into just choosing life after a big loss. It always astounds me that people don’t see the connection between stopping the deaths and prevention.
The science tells us that the number one indicator for substance use disorder is trauma, we know that death causes trauma, we know that removing people from their parents causes trauma, we know that the disease causes trauma to the entire family. How is it that there are those among us who believe we should stop trying to heal the disease and “focus on prevention?” It is never going to be either-or, it is always going to be both-and. Without that we will never stop the cycle of this disease.
As I sat by the river each day in the last 10, the image came to me of the Japanese tradition where they put broken bowls back together with gold paint. The idea of not hiding the cracks in our foundation, but rather showing them. Right now a lot of our kids, our families, are broken. They need us to stop trying to hide their cracks and instead allow those cracks to become part of their healing. There is nothing like burying a young person and even more so to bury their son next to them just over twenty years later. We have the tools to heal this disease. Harm reduction works and it is prevention. We must meet these folks where they are. We must foster the relationship the children have to their parents. We must meet people suffering with love and compassion. We must stop the death associated with this disease.
My brother was the one who brought us together as a family, for dinners, for concerts and more. We had to fight to carry that with us after his death. I am so grateful that Kaya got to love his papa for as long as he lived and that no one prevented that. I am so grateful that we never turned away from, and continued to hold Kaya in love no matter what. That was as much a gift to us as it was necessary to him. I couldn’t have survived it had I not just kept loving him through his opioid use disorder. Johnathon was my big brother and my life has never been the same without him. I miss him today as much as I did on that Sunday 23 years ago, when I was standing at work on a payphone in Tennessee, listening to my dad tell me that my brother had died. It is in Johnathon’s memory and the memory of his son, that I ask today, now, for all of you to release your stigma, to follow the science, and commit to compassion instead. If nothing else, I never regret having loved the people that I lost.