Two moms who have suffered the crushing loss of a child to the overdose crisis are doing what they can to help other families and to tackle stigma around addiction.
Kathy Wagner, whose 21-year-old son Tristan died of fentanyl poisoning in August 2017, recently released her book, Here With You: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Addiction.
“I hope that anybody who is struggling with parenting a youth in addiction or who has lost somebody to overdose, I hope that they don't feel alone,” she said. “I hope that they can recognize that there is still hope to be found, even if it looks very different than they ever expected it to be.”
Wagner also wants people to know that by sharing their stories, they can help break the stigma around addiction.
“There's nothing that they have experienced that has not been experienced by so many other people,” she said.
Wagner will be doing a reading and book signing at Kinder Books in River Market on Thursday, Oct. 5 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. It's free but registration is requested.
Here With You, much of which is set in New Westminster, tells the story of Wagner's family and her son Tristan.
“Addiction does not affect just the person who is struggling with it personally,” she said. “It affects the family; it affects all of their loved ones.”
Wagner said it’s important that parents of youth are struggling with addiction share their stories, so it helps others know they’re not alone and helps end the stigma.
“I'm very much hoping to show people that people who struggle with addiction are good people,” she said. “They have worthy lives worth saving.”
When it comes to the drug toxicity, mental health and addictions crises, Wagner said there’s no room for stigma.
“We have to come together,” she told the Record. “So I am hoping that this book will help people to feel a bit more compassionate towards people who are experiencing either addiction or experiencing a loved one in addiction, and will also maybe encourage people to share their own stories, not necessarily with the whole world the way I have, but with somebody they can trust.”
New West book launch
Anne Uebbing, owner of Kinder Books, is in the midst of reading Here With You. It’s a story that she says is “close to my broken heart”, having lost her 13-year-old son Luka to laced drugs in October 2021.
Wagner and Uebbing first crossed paths at a bereavement support group for folks grieving the loss of a loved one due to overdose or substance-use related harm.
“It can happen to anybody,” Uebbing said. “This is happening within families.”
Although Luka experienced a lot of social anxiety, his family never saw signs that he was using drugs. His parents later learned he had begun using drugs in the middle school.
Two months before his death, Luka overdosed and was revived.
“We were in the hospital for two hours. They checked that his ribs weren't broken, and then they sent us home,” Uebbeing said. “And we said, ‘What do we do now? Where do we go? When do we get help?’”
Answers to those questions never came in time for Luka.
Luka’s parents took him to a clinic, where a psychiatrist told them he was a teenager and was “experimenting” with drugs. Luka researched treatment options and told his counsellor about one option, only to be told he would “go deeper” into drugs if he attended a program with older youths.
"For kids, there's nothing,” Uebbing said. “There's nothing.”
Luka died of an overdose two months later.
“I remember exactly the day he passed away. He came home from school and he looked very sad. I went up to his room and I said, ‘This must be very difficult for you, after this overdose and … that they kind of brushed us off. I just want to tell you we are here for you no matter what, we will be on your side,’” she said. “We had dinner that night. And that was the last time I saw him alive. That night, we found him dead in the room next to me.”
After Luka’s death, Uebbing expected to hear from officials – whether it be the police or the province about the overdose death of minor – but she heard nothing.
“Nobody seemed to care that he was 13,” she said. “It seems so normal, and it was so disturbing.”
Since her son’s death, Uebbing has contacted government officials advocating for improvements to mental health and addictions programming for children. Instead of condolences, Uebbing wants action.
After learning Wagner had published her book, Uebbing invited her to do a New West book launch event the bookstore she owns in River Market. She hopes this it will help make people aware of the need to avoid stigmatizing drug use.
“It can happen to anyone, and you cannot put a stigma on it,” she said. “When Luka overdosed the first time, we didn't even tell the school that this has happened because we feared he would be like an outcast and that would have been even more for his anxiety.”
The Community Action Team will be attending the event and providing information about naloxone kits and how to use them.