The holidays are a time of remembrance. As we gather together, grief for family members who have died intensifies. I reached out to my friend John Sytsema, funeral director of the Sytsema Funeral and Cremation Services, for his words of wisdom for coping with the rising number of deaths from the opioid crisis. John’s passionate words reveal how close to home drug addiction really is. We owe it to our children, and to each other, to work together to find better solutions to help address this problem.
What effect has the opioid crisis had on our community from your experience?
Our West Michigan area is no different than the poorest of communities or the most affluent. We are serving families that have lost one or more of their children to overdoses or suicide. What can I say to comfort them? It will soon be four years that we buried my dear Mother. She was 99 years, 7-months old. We had grief and sorrow, but not the deep grief families are experiencing now, suffering with death by overdose.
How many of you remember where you were or what you were doing September 11, 2001? Or, how many of you knew, or through a friend or relative knew, someone killed in 9/11? We are all six people or fewer away from 9/11. We are all six people or fewer away from knowing someone with a drug addiction. Every family dealing with an opioid death is experiencing their own 9/11. Our community is no different than any other.
In 2016, the United States had 175 deaths per day or 64,070 overdoses. That’s up fivefold from 1999, and over the 58,220 that died in the Vietnam War – a conflict that lasted 20 years. A recent study found that opioid deaths may even be undercounted by 20 to 35 percent. By 2015, the economic cost to our government was over $504 billion, but we can’t put a number on personal grief.
What are common experiences families who have lost a loved one to the opioid crisis seem to share?
Our families share the fact that the death they are experiencing is nondiscriminating. Opioid death is the leading cause of death for those under 50 and the age is trending upward. The median age for Sytsema Funeral and Cremation Services is 37.2. We average one opioid death per month and have experienced two in a week at times.
We see families embarrassed by their loved one’s addiction. A cousin came to see us with the immediate family to make arrangements, and then, we had to bury that cousin six weeks later from an overdose. Families search in vain for answers. A woman desperate for answers to her sister’s death went to the local police detective. He presented her with an eight-inch stack of files, telling her, “All these families want answers, too.”
Educated and affluent people die from opioids. The drugs alter the brain. Families may lose the chance to see their son walk his daughter down the wedding aisle. The drugs don’t care. These families are losing birthdays, graduations, grandchildren – all the family occasions.
Burying a child has to be one of the most difficult things in life. How can parents even begin to cope? Are there any resources you can share?
We see parents and siblings at their wits’ end. Some have lived with this epidemic for so long that the death can be a release and a relief: “We knew this was coming, just didn’t know when”. Most often, the kids don’t have money for their own funerals, and some parents aren’t expecting it. We have seen parents who have spent all their savings for their children’s drug rehabilitation, and the only resource then, is the Michigan Department of Human Service (DHS).
The grief is so intense; it’s hard for the parents to even function. They can’t leave the house or even get out of bed. We, as funeral directors, understand the importance of not judging family members or even addicts themselves. It’s a disease that devastates every life it touches. We have seen the terrifying power of addiction and the hole that overdose leaves behind.
The world is not the same place today, as even a few years ago. The ripples of addiction have spread to every corner of the United States.
Even as a physician, I oftentimes find myself ill-equipped with what to say to a grieving family. What are some of the best ways to comfort a grieving family?
This is a question we’re often asked. Sometimes, it’s not what we say, but rather just being present for the visitation or the funeral means everything to the families we are honored to serve. A hug or a shared remembrance or just being a good listener is what the family needs. To me, simple things are often the most endearing. I would suggest going to our website to read, Conversation Starters for Visitations.
Additional listening and reading suggestions: