Grieving families gather for OKC vigil on overdose awareness day.
Families of overdose victims gather for a vigil in OKC to support awareness
With drug overdose deaths on the rise in Oklahoma and across the nation, loved ones of those lost to addiction are leaning on one another for support while calling on lawmakers to increase treatment options and continue lessening the stigma through criminal justice reform.
In recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, about 80 people gathered Tuesday evening in Scissortail Park, where a flameless candlelight vigil was held to support relatives and friends of overdose victims.
“All of us who were here had a reason to be here,” said Tammy Posey, co-administrator of Team Sharing — OK, a nonprofit support group that organized the first such planned annual event of its kind in Oklahoma. “All of our stories are similar, but still different. And despite those differences, we were able to come together and share in the same grief. Education and advocacy is so important. The days of drug addiction not affecting your everyday family are over.”
Overdose deaths in the United States reached a record 93,000 in 2020, or a nearly 30% increase over the previous year when more than 72,000 people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deaths from opioids increased from 50,963 in 2019 to 69,710 in 2020, with the increased use of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine driving the epidemic.
In Oklahoma last year, drug overdose deaths soared to 1,009, eclipsing the previous record 883 deaths in 2019, according to the state Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
Among grieving parents at the vigil
was Denise Roberts, of Edmond, co-administrator of Team Sharing's Oklahoma chapter.
Roberts' two sons, Dillan and Matthew, were born on the same day, four years apart.
Matthew, the older of the two, was tall, charming, “had the ‘bad boy' vibe going on,” and sang with a beautiful and natural voice. Dillan had a charismatic personality, enjoyed sports and later took up chess and guitar.
Both died of heroin overdoses about six years apart. Dillan was 19. Matthew was 28.
“I realize they're just really sick, and I couldn't fix it,” Roberts said. “They would steal stuff from me, bring it to the pawn shop and then give me the pawn shop receipt. And say ‘here Mom, I'm sorry.'”
For those who have lost children to drug overdoses, Roberts said sometimes parents do all they can with the resources they have, and it still won't be enough to save their son or daughter.
Her faith has carried her through some of the darkest days of her life.
“If I didn't have that, I don't know how I would get out of bed,” Roberts said. “That, and I just know that I'll see them again one day. And that although I couldn't help them and they couldn't be healed here, I guess that's just enough for now, and I have to deal with that and I'll ask questions later.”
Roberts, Posey and the many other parents who attended the vigil advocate removing the stigma associated with overdoses. They were united in their belief of addressing the problem less through the criminal justice system and more through treatment, and providing more help for the families of those suffering from addiction.
“You get diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, the casseroles are on the table, the whole community rallies around, wanting to know what they can do, and they should,” Roberts said. “So why is it at addiction you have to fail and fail so many times before you get the help you need? It's either hush-hush or you're the butt of ugly jokes. The time is now. We need to get rid of the stigma.”
Lorri and Monty Boatright, of Ardmore, had lost one daughter, 22-year-old Kourtney Lynn Brackett Cargal, from a brain tumor in 2008. When their oldest daughter, 33-year-old Kimberly Sue Ford, died from overdosing on heroin and methamphetamine in 2017, the grief was almost too much to bear.
“She wanted help,” Lorri said. “She just couldn't grab it.”
Ford, described by her parents as “her own social butterfly” who “never met a stranger,” had graduated from Ardmore High School and the University of Central Oklahoma. It wasn't until her struggle with drugs that her relationship with her parents began to change, the Boatrights recalled.
“We never fought until drugs came along,” Lorri said. “When you have a drug addict in your family, the whole family is on the team.”
The drug dealer who sold heroin and methamphetamine to Ford shortly before her death pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is currently serving sentences in the Oklahoma Corrections Department.
“The more we get the message out here to get people aware of it, the better chance we have of saving other people's kids," Monty said.
If this isn't 'a war, I don't know what is.'
The Boatrights said they were grateful for the sense of community they felt from the Team Sharing support group.
“It's not a good club to be in, but boy, it's a support club that you really need, and we need more of them,” Lorri said.
Kristi Wade Russell, of Edmond, another grieving parent, said her 18-year-old daughter, Taylor Alexis “Alex” Russell, loved basketball, hand-holding, stray dogs and children.
Her dream of becoming a teacher was cut short on March 3, 2016, when she died from a heroin overdose.
“She fought hard,” Russell said. “But that day, so much hope for the future was gone in an instant.”
The drug dealer who played a role in Alex's death has recently seen time behind bars regarding other charges, Russell said, but has not been prosecuted in her daughter's case.
“I hope to see the laws change a little bit,” Russell said. “Despite everything he's done, he's still been out here, enjoying his birthdays. For Alex's birthday, we have pizzas and cupcakes in a cemetery.”
Ray Wade, of Yukon, retired hospice chaplain and Russell's father, said he often finds himself wondering about decisions he and his wife, Shirley, made as they were helping raise Alex. Ultimately, Wade said, her struggles with drugs arose from not understanding her worth as an individual.
“Take time to listen,” Wade said, offering advice to other parents. “You don't know the hurt they're hiding. With Alex, self-worth was always an issue, but when she got on the court, it was a win. That just wasn't enough.”
Everyone likes to talk about closure, but the pain never really goes away, Wade said.
Kayla Flanary, of Wewoka, knows the feeling all too well. It's been nearly two years since the death of her daughter and the emotions are still raw.
“I'm not better, and I don't think I ever will be,” she said.
Her 24-year-old daughter, Macee Belle Grabber, was “the light of every room,” Flanary said.
Grabber developed a prescription drug problem after experiencing spinal disc herniation during nursing school. While in rehab, “she met the guy with all of the wrong answers,” Flanary said, and the encounter led her down the path to heroin. After many attempts at recovery, Grabber's heroin relapse proved fatal on Oct. 12, 2019.
“The thing the world needs to know about Macee is, she's your daughter, she's your sister, she's your mother,” Flanary said.
“They're wiping out a generation of people, and our government won't do anything about it. We lose 100,000 people a year. If that's not a war, I don't know what is.”
For help living with or knowing someone suffering from drug addiction, go to www.teamsharinginc.org, www.fate.org or www.shatterproof.org.