Denise Cullen has lived through one of the worst tragedies a mother can experience – losing a child. But if there is anything worse than losing a child, it is losing a child to a drug overdose, because grief is accompanied by stigma and blame.
Denise lost her only son, Jeff, when he was 27 years old to a fatal combination of morphine and Xanax. She remembers him as “warm, open, loving, bright and stubborn. He had a huge laugh and a fabulous smile,” she says. He was also impulsive and suffered from ADD.
“We were very, very close,” Denise recalls. “Even during those horrible years [of drug use], he and I never became distant from each other. It was torturous at times but the one thing that was always, always apparent was that he loved his family and his family loved him. No matter what.”
Jeff began using drugs in the 9th grade, possibly to self-medicate his ADD. Over the next 12 years he experimented with a variety of drugs, including his final drug of choice, opiates. During those years, “Jeff tried so, so hard to stop,” says Denise. “He felt ‘broken’ and guilty for the hurt he inflicted on his parents. He once wrote about his ‘fairytale life’ that he had screwed up so badly, and his self-esteem was gone toward the end. But he always took total responsibility for what he did.”
For Denise, the pressure and fear of watching her only child battle addiction was “like a roller coaster with good periods and crashes. You learn to be hyper-vigilant, living always with fear. You have hope as well – as long as they are alive you have hope, but the sound of the phone ringing at night, or not hearing from them in a normal way is very difficult. It’s always in the back of your mind that your child could die in some way as a result of their addiction. You may think you can imagine it, that you are in a way prepared…but you are not.”
The fateful day arrived on August 5, 2008. Jeff was at the beach with a friend waiting for a bed to open up in a long-term rehab facility. Denise remembers that he was happy and hopeful about the treatment center.
“I called him in the afternoon to ask when he would be home,” says Denise. “He said he’d call, but hadn’t done so by 6:30 or 8:30pm. Finally at 10pm I called and left a very angry message. I was upset that he was acting like ‘the old days’ and making [his parents] worry. He never got those last messages. He was lying on the grass in a nice neighborhood…dying.”
According to eyewitnesses – and shockingly, there were many – Jeff was lying on the grass starting around 4:30pm. He lay very near a curb where cars parked on an active street, yet no one stopped to ask what a clean, good-looking kid was doing motionless on the grass. At 11pm a woman finally called police, saying that Jeff hadn’t moved an inch in two hours. The time of death was around 10pm. He could have been saved.
“At around 3:00am a very kind man, a Sheriff from the Orange County Coroner’s Office, rang our doorbell,” says Denise. “He had Jeff’s wallet, keys, phone, and beach gear…I am not a dramatic person but I fell to the floor and screamed until I couldn’t scream anymore and simply made sounds like a wounded animal.”
Losing her only son was the worst kind of pain Denise could imagine, and she began visiting grief groups for parents. To her shock and chagrin, parents whose children had died of non drug-related means were judgmental about Jeff’s overdose. “I could actually feel people move their chairs away from me [when they heard Jeff had died of an overdose],” says Denise. “They had an attitude like ‘your child chose what killed him. Mine didn’t.”
But judgment and accusation didn’t stop Denise. She left the traditional grief groups to found her own chapter of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), for parents who also bear the unique stigma attached to drug overdose. GRASP was originally founded by Pat and Russ Wittberger of San Diego, but after they stepped down, Denise and her husband volunteered to take over. Today GRASP has 43 chapters in 24 states and offers healing and advice to parents in mourning.
“My advice to parents is to learn as much as they possibly can about addictive illness and drug use from responsible sources early on,” says Denise. “Talk honestly about the risk factors of becoming addicted by ‘experimenting,’ talk about family history of alcohol or substance abuse.”
Denise and her husband Gary also founded Broken No More, a nonprofit that works to change how substance abuse is viewed by the public and to fight failed drug policies. Run by people dealing with substance abuse issues in their families, the organization advocates for sterile syringe availability, 911 Good Samaritan laws that encourage witnesses to an overdose to call for help, and greater access to naloxone, an antidote to opiate overdose. Most importantly, Denise believes that to resolve the overdose crisis, people whose lives have been touched by this issue need to speak up.
“We must get loud about overdose,” she says. “During the AIDS crisis, nothing was done until the gay community spoke up, then help came by the bucketfuls. Now, not only has the disease become more manageable, but the stigma has been reduced as well. With overdose, we must address both these elements. We must research addiction and find better treatments and a cure. It can be done. We just have to care enough to do it.”
Death is not a time for blame. It is a time for reflection. And then, it is a time to speak.