The boy I lost my virginity to died shortly after. It was a motorbike accident. He was intense and pretty moody at times. But he was kind and wonderful and still one of the best people I've ever known in my life. My friends and I mourned openly. We grieved together.
People would ask, “How did he die?”
“On his bike,” we'd say.
“Oh that's so tragic. And so young. That poor family.”
My high school sweetheart was a Pike River miner. He was a charmer. He could talk his way out of anything. He got the both of us into a world of trouble when we dated. His cause of death became almost heroic. I hadn't seen him in a long time, but I grieved for him openly. People would ask about it.
“He was in the mine,” I'd respond.
“So tragic. So young. That poor family.”
When my Dad passed from cancer we sat with him in the days prior, and he had a stream of friends, visiting to say a final goodbye. We invited people to donate to the Cancer Society in leiu of flowers.
We grieved openly.
“How did he die?”
“Cancer,” I'd say.
“Oh that's awful. So tragic. Still so young. Your poor family.”
Today marks three years since my brother died. The person who'd stood by my side, and protected me from the day I was born, was gone – suddenly and unexpectedly.
And I quickly learned to dread the question.
“How did he die?”
For six months we were lucky. The autopsy report hadn't been finalised. Cause of death: unknown.
He died in his sleep. We're not sure. He was well known enough in his field of work for consiracy theories to emerge. We let them ride. We hid in a silent shame while the rest of the world created ridiculous stories. Somehow it was easier. The truth in the autopsy report changed everything.
There's a look that people give when you mention heroin. Eye contact disappears. Voices get quieter. People don't know where to look.
If you want to end a conversation suddenly, it's the easiest way.
“Oh,” they say.
An uncomfortable silence always follows.
Not awful. Not tragic. No death notices requesting donations to drug harm reduction. No charities set up to prevent overdoses. No open dialogue.
And with that one word, somehow my grief feels less legitimate. Those two words seem to overshadow the 35 years of incredible human that came before them.
I've learned to not mention it to most people. I've learned to not talk about my brother much to strangers because the question will eventually arise. I've learned that people don't want to hear that my brother lost his life because he miscalculated the amount of drugs he took one Friday afternoon, alone in his San Francisco apartment. People don't want to hear the word heroin. Or overdose. It makes them uncomfortable. Far be it from me to cause discomfort.
In the three years since, I've become an expert at pre-emptively judging people's reaction when they ask how he died. And I base by answer on that. The cause of death ranges from the truth, to simply an “accident”. When I answer honestly, I know the response before it comes.
So we sweep it under the rug. We pretend it doesn't exist. Died suddenly. Accident. Cause of death unknown.
How did he die?
He died in his sleep.
Not long after he died, I told a friend that I was dreading the day the autopsy report was released.
“Why?” he asked.
“How did he die?”
“Heroin, I think.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I can see why you wouldn't want that to get out.”
And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was supposed to be ashamed of my brother. And I felt guilty for grieving as much as I did. Because heroin users die. It's what they do.
Not so awful. Not so tragic.
And that collective shame and stigma is half the problem. I knew my brother liked to party. I never knew he used heroin. For a while I felt that he didn't trust me enough to tell me. Or that maybe we weren't as close as I thought. Until a friend pointed out that I didn't know because he simply loved me enough that he didn't want us to think less of him.
The shame that exists ensures that the problem as a whole will never go away. We can sweep it under the rug. We can pretend it doesn't exist. We can consider overdose deaths and less tragic than “real” tragedies. But that thinking is a tragedy in itself.
How can we expect to solve a problem that we shun so openly? If you know that reaching out for help is going to result in shame and stigma and potential criminal charges, it's no surprise that people choose to tackle the problem alone. And in the world of opioids, tackling the problem alone can be dangerous as hell.
My brother was my hero.
He was the child that would always want me to come along on adventures when we were young. He was the kid that got kicked off a school bus for hitting a girl because she was mean to his sister. He was the teenager that looked so incredibly sad when he said something mean and made me cry once. He was the man that had tears in his eyes as he carried our father's casket at his funeral. He was the guy that would always tell me his best days were the times when I told him life was going well for me.
He wasn't perfect. He made some dumb decisions. His biggest mistake is etched permanently on his death certificate.
It doesn't make his death, or his life, worth any less. It makes him human.
He's not an overdose statistic. He's my brother. And I love him.
And there's countless like him. For every memory of my brother and for every tear that I shed, there are thousands like me. With memories and tears of their own. Isolated in our shameful grief.
For every overdose statistic there's a memory of a baby uttering his first word. There's a grainy video of a child taking his first steps towards mum. There's a photo of a childhood adventure, a recollection of heartache and tears. There's a lifetime of favourite pets, hugs, tears, adventures, mistakes and triumphs.
Those two words on the autopsy report don't make the lifetime that came before it dissapear.
Good people die in car accidents. So do bad people. Cancer doesn't discriminate based on a person's worth. Some real jerks try heroin. So do a whole lot of good people. In the time since my brother died I've come to speak to a lot of users – past and present. I've met incredible people who, after getting clean, have made it their life mission to cut the stigma and reduce the shame attached to addiction and drug use. Because we all have one thing in common – we know the damage that shame can do.
I've met people more intelligent and loyal than I could ever dream of being. They also happen to be trying to kick a dangerous habit.
No less awful. No less tragic.
Until we remove heroin and overdose from the list of dirty words, the problem will never go away.
For three years my own shame, my own guilt has been part of the problem.
This week, on the eve of his three year anniversary, the word heroin was spoken at a family lunch for the first time. It was spoken quietly and quickly. Like the word itself would bring shame and guilt. Among some family members the word will never be spoken.
I have never been anything but proud of how my brother lived. I no longer want to feel like I'm supposed to be ashamed of him for how he died.
Three years ago my brother died.
How did he die?
Ask me how he lived though.
He lived with passion. With indescribable love and fierce loyalty. He was smart and generous. He lived with joy and he suffered heartache. He laughed, he cried, he loved.
He was amazing.
My brother lived a full and wonderful life for 35 years.
He died of a heroin overdose.
It is awful. It is tragic.
Today I cry for the brother I loved. I don't hide from the way he died.
My grief is real.