How I Told My Children About Their Uncle’s Opioid Overdose
Having to articulate the death of my brother was, and still is, one of the most gut-wrenching obligations I’ll ever face as a mother. But at the same time, this was way too important of a lesson to try and skirt around the facts.
Everything you wish you would have done goes out the window when tragedy strikes. Nothing can prepare you for that moment, or the ripple of emotions to follow. Twelve weeks ago, I received a message on Instagram that would forever change the way I see the world. The way the world would see me, too. For all my life until that very moment, I was a sister. ‘Sissy’, he called me. You’d have thought he never actually knew my real name, and that was fine by me.
“Hi Danielle. I’m Scott’s roommate.” Without having to read any further, my heart immediately drop to my stomach. Looking back, this message was like that modern day 3 a.m. phone call that every parent or family member fears.
Scott Anthony Molinari was my only sibling. He had eyes of the most brilliant blue. Just like the sky on the sunniest of days. And when he looked at you, it was as if he could see right into your soul. His manly and mysterious beard masked his playful side, only to those who didn’t know him. My kids thought he was the coolest, and holy cow, turns out they were right. He had an army of friends and a strong and stunning woman as his girlfriend.
Scott died of an accidental overdose at the age of 33. Scott was just one case in tens of thousands of Fentanyl related deaths in our country over the past year. For those of you who don’t know, Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. According to a National Vital Statistics System report recently published from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fentanyl is now the drug most frequently involved in overdose deaths in the U.S.
For weeks on end, it was all a blur. But as a mother to four kids who may never truly understand why, I had to break it to them that they would never see their Uncle Scotty again.
Grasping, and then having to articulate the death of my brother was, and still is, one of the most gut-wrenching obligations I’ll ever face as a mother. Amidst feelings of disbelief and despair, I would have to look my children in the eyes and tell them Uncle Scotty was gone. And then I would have to tell them why. This was going to be the first of an entire lifetime of conversations we’ll share together in grief, attempting to process how such a thing could happen to someone as young and exuberant as him.
After our three older kids (aged 6, 10, and 12) got home from school, my husband and I asked them to sit down. In a remarkable moment of renewed composure, we told them that Uncle Scotty had passed away. Taking their ages into consideration, we refrained from sharing in detail, but at the same time, this was way too important of a lesson to try and skirt around the facts. Their futures could depend on it.
“Uncle Scotty made a mistake. He took an illegal drug that poisoned him, and he died.” Hearing those words come out of my own mouth was numbing. I was beside myself. I screamed a little. And I cried a lot. Looking back, I was as strong as I could be in that moment.
Stone-faced with confusion they asked, “Why, Mom?” I suppose their reaction was typical for kids. Instead of delving into the barrage of reasons people like Scott get into drugs, our message was simple and clear. When you take illegal drugs, there is a chance that this will happen to you. Kids need to understand that we have this ONE life to live. And there will be a day when they are presented with a choice. Unfortunate as it is, making the wrong choice just one time can be fatal.
Like adults, the coping mechanisms of children dealing with death can be very different. We wanted to keep the kids involved, but in a positive way, so we shifted their focus by giving them an activity to assist with the celebration of Uncle Scotty's life. Here are some ways we let the children be involved:
- They helped select photos for a memory board
- They helped choose songs for a playlist
- We all talked about planting a tree/forest in his honor
- For some reason, Scott’s death really struck a chord with our six-year-old, Roman, so we framed a recent photo of the two of them and put it on his nightstand.
Our biggest takeaway was to acknowledge their grief, and then shift the sadness by asking what could make them feel better in that moment?
Do I wish I was a little more composed that day? Without a doubt. And every day since? Sure. As parents, we’re supposed to be this pillar of strength and stability for our children. But we’re also human, and being unapologetically emotional is okay. It’s more than okay. Showing our kids the real and raw side of vulnerability lets them know that it’s okay to feel. And the love and comfort they brought to me during this time actually showed me a whole new side of them.
Isn’t it odd the things we experience, discover, and learn in the wake of tragedy?
The truth is, death can strike at any moment, at any time, and no one is unscathed from that. Another painful truth is that the addiction gene runs in most families, and all it takes is a few times to become a drug addict. Since the increase in fentanyl-related deaths, it’s clear to see that experimenting with drugs of any kind, even just once, leaves you vulnerable to possible accidental death by overdose.
Anyone who knows me knows that passiveness in the wake of tragedy is against my religion. When my brother died, a part of me died with him. Utterly empty, crushed, and picking up the pieces, there’s still the relentless and resilient side of me who wants to do something about it. I’ve been working fast and furiously on gathering the information I need to use my platform for interaction, education, and awareness when it comes to this topic.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. Her motive? Passion. Her words? Actionable. Her focus? Our children. Here are some great takeaways every parent should know:
Five Things To Know About Opioids:
1. 72,000 Americans died last year from overdoses from drugs, almost 50,000 were from opioids.
2. Within five days of using opioids, most people will become addicted.
3. Addictions become implanted at a really young age (just from going to the dentist or from post-operational prescriptions). It becomes part of the brain chemical composition and set people up for lifetime addictions.
4. Most people’s pain level that would require something as strong as oxycodone only lasts one to two days.
5. No family is immune to mental health and addiction issues.
Five Things To Do For Prevention And Help:
1. Know the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Drug Help Line: 1-800 662 4357 (HELP).
2. Go to your medicine cabinets—if you have leftover opiates, get rid of them. Every town has a safe disposal for opiates.
3. Insist that your children’s schools have drug awareness programs. If there isn’t a program, ask your school why.
4. Talk to your children. Talk to your teenagers. Talk to your brothers and sisters, friends, cousins, and their cousins. Share these facts. It’s the only way.
5. Also always tell your kids that if they need help, and if they’ve made a mistake, that you will be there to help them.
Just like that, I lost my brother, the witness to my life, but simultaneously I gained a village of compassionate humans. And surprisingly, my children have been among the most open, understanding, and compassionate of them all. Grieving this loss together is something I never fathomed. Humanity also has a funny way of surprising us when we need it most. Although I remain broken, my family unit has never felt so strong. That tells me my husband and I are doing something right.
Danielle Schaffer lives in California with her husband and four children. You can find Danielle at citygirlgonemom.com, on Instagram at @citygirlgonemom, and on her popular podcast, “The Mom Confidential.” Listen to her episodes on opioids: Behind the Heroin Diaries, A Glimpse Into Opioid Regulations, and Continuing the Opioid Discussion. Read more of her story on her blog.