'For most of us it took 10 years for our child to die'

Protestors against a safe injecting clinic to be built on Victoria Street, Richmond.
Photograph Paul Jeffers
The Age NEWS
27 Aug 2017
Protestors against a safe injecting clinic to be built on Victoria Street, Richmond. Photograph Paul Jeffers The Age NEWS 27 Aug 2017
Processed with Snapseed. Harriet Wran leaves Silverwater Correctional Centre, accompanied by her mother Jill Hickson Wran.

Processed with Snapseed. Harriet Wran leaves Silverwater Correctional Centre, accompanied by her mother Jill Hickson Wran.

10/10/17 Fran Williamson, group facilitator at The Supper Club, a group run by SHARC in Carnegie for parents whose children died from drug overdoses or drug use. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

10/10/17 Fran Williamson, group facilitator at The Supper Club, a group run by SHARC in Carnegie for parents whose children died from drug overdoses or drug use. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

When Anne* spotted an old friend in the supermarket, a familiar sense of dread set in. Wheeling her trolley around, she headed for the checkout with her shopping list half completed.

One of the first questions a mother will be asked on such occasions is "How are the children?".

Sometimes these questions are unavoidable - the hairdresser has you as a captive audience, for example. She might innocently enquire, "How many children do you have?" To answer with "two" would be simpler, but feels like a betrayal to the third.

Anne's son Will died of a heroin overdose 10 years ago. But he is still her child.

For Helena, whose son Michael also died of an overdose, there's an added complication.

"In the Asian culture you don't speak about things openly," she says, "so when you have a child with an addiction who dies, no one will come up to you. Some of my older family members will not admit that Michael died of an overdose. I worry about speaking up in public because I don't want to hurt them, but I feel I owe it to him to not be ashamed."

Helena and Anne are members of The Supper Club, a bereavement group for family and friends of people who died from drug and alcohol use. They meet once a month in Carnegie, at the headquarters of the Self Help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC). The idea had come to Margaret Quon back in 2009, a year after losing her son Kris to an overdose. She asked Family Drug Help - a program now absorbed into SHARC - to help create the meeting.

"It was such a silent grief," she explains. "You had to keep it to yourself. If Kris had died of cancer, people would have asked me what kind of treatment he had, what hospital. So there was a need for somewhere that was safe to talk, not only about how you were feeling, but about your child - and without feeling like you were being judged for being a bad parent. We do air our dirty linen."

Nine years on, The Supper Club is a lifeline to its members. Some had previously tried 'normal' bereavement groups, but they couldn't shake the feeling that some deaths are seen as more virtuous than others.

"People think your son died of choice," explains Helena. "The stigma we feel could be our own perception, but we do perceive it."

Deena lost her son Ben to alcohol, but prefers to remember him as a talented writer and musician.

"You're somebody's worst nightmare," she says. "If people hear my son Ben died of alcoholism, it goes straight to all the judgement and imagination. People don't know what to say, or they move away.

"I remember seeing a psychologist who had a look of horror on her face and I thought, she doesn't get this and she's thinking of her own kids. The Supper Club is the place where Ben is respected and not judged."

The Supper Club attracts more women than men, which Quon believes is not unusual in support groups.

"We seem to fall back into that old idea that women are the inner wheel, keeping family and emotions together, and the outer wheel is men being businesslike," she says. The one regular male attendee is Anne's husband Greg, stepfather to Will. He admits to being unable to vocalise his feelings, but is content to just listen and be present.

Each two-hour session is led by a trained facilitator with a background in alcohol and drug counselling, because the loss experienced by the members is complex. Most have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms from watching their child deteriorate, from calling ambulances and police, and from letting all but the most trusted friends slip away in order to contain the stigma.

And then there's the slow-motion inevitability of it all. "For most of us it took 10 years for our child to die," says Helena.

Anne has a video that replays in her mind, of going to the Coroner's Office to view Will's body. She's a social worker who, prior to Will's death, worked as a grief counsellor. This only reinforces her opinion that those who lose loved ones to substances are dealing with a very unique experience.

"All those years beforehand leave you in such a vulnerable state, and then to end up going through the death ..." she trails off.

Will worked on a rig, and would go through binges of heroin - a week on, a week off.

"He was earning good money; a good looking, healthy guy," Anne says, "but I had 10 years of hypervigilance, watching my beautiful boy play Russian roulette with a needle."

The younger sibling who idolised Will also observed him being revived by paramedics in the family home.

'We forgot to treat him as a normal person'

Helena's son Michael was 28 when he died. He'd discovered heroin while he was at university, undertaking a degree in software engineering.

"I sent him to the good schools and gave him everything, and yet he gets in a situation where he sells his guitar and everything else just to get money to buy drugs," she says. "I was ashamed of my son because I couldn't understand addiction. In my mind, only the 'other' people experienced this, not me."

Counsellors advised Helena and her husband to use the 'tough love' approach, of not allowing Michael into the house if he was using, and to have him arrested if he did.

"Whatever advice you're given, you follow it to the letter," she says, "so I called the police on my son, not because he was violent - he was a very gentle and loving child - but because he wanted to shoot up.

A rally for safe injecting rooms in Richmond last month.

A rally for safe injecting rooms in Richmond last month. Photo: AAP

"I didn't understand his need and we forgot to treat him as a normal person. That feels so, so sad. If there was more education about addiction I wouldn't have treated him that way. That was a disservice we did to our son. When he died, we thought 'how awfully we treated him'."

The Supper Club is a place at which guilt and shame can be freely expressed, with no well-meaning friend chipping in with the assurance that a parent did everything they could.

"One of my greatest regrets is that I was too judgmental because I was so petrified about what Will was doing to himself," says Anne. "As a social worker I'd seen children removed from parents who had a drug problem, and I couldn't understand it. I thought, 'Why can't you do this for your child?'.

"But now I realise, they can't do it. Our children couldn't do it for their mothers. Addiction is an illness and a child needs your love and support."

Demonstrators opposed to safe injecting rooms in Richmond are held back by police in Victoria Street in August.

Demonstrators opposed to safe injecting rooms in Richmond are held back by police in Victoria Street in August. Photo: Paul Jeffers

The members are in favour of a safe injecting room in Richmond, but the long-running debate over the issue in the media is a hurtful and triggering one.

"When Yarra City Council wanted to have a memorial for people who had died of overdose, people wrote to the paper and said, 'These people did it to themselves'," Helena says.

"They don't understand that it's not that people who use drugs are bad people, it's just that once they're addicted they can't help themselves. You might see people looking rough or yelling, but the moment someone shows them a little bit of kindness, it all changes."

It frustrates Anne that the media objective is often to scare. "There's an obsession with violent ice users, but the majority are functioning people," she notes.

Helena wishes the humanising stories of parents would be amplified, having felt so isolated herself. On the occasions that the media has allowed family members to talk about their loved ones as real people - such as the victim impact statement of Dawn Edge, whose son Jason was murdered in Perth over a drug debt - the individual has a rare opportunity to be humanised.

"The Jason you see in the media is not the Jason we all knew and loved," Edge said. "Drugs were only a very small part of who he became after suffering so very much."

Similarly, Anne and Helena remember well that when Bob Hawke and Jill Wran spoke out in support of their daughters they stirred public empathy.

Harriet Wran leaves Silverwater Correctional Centre, accompanied by her mother Jill Hickson Wran.

Harriet Wran leaves Silverwater Correctional Centre, accompanied by her mother Jill Hickson Wran. Photo: Nick Moir

The reality is, the members of The Supper Club are more likely to experience the trickle-down effect of scare tactics, through overhearing friends and colleagues talking about drug users negatively. "People like to use the word 'druggie', like drugs are some scary alien thing that's not going to touch them," says Deena.

"When we already feel isolated, language like 'druggies' from people who should know better is sure to silence us," says Anne. "It's very hard to change people's thinking. I tend to say, 'That's interesting. What's your understanding of addiction?'"

More often than not it transpires that understanding is limited. Even parents of children using drugs can struggle to understand, which is why SHARC offers a six-week education program about the nature of addiction.

"Just acknowledge how sad and hard it must have been," Deena advises friends of families who have lost a child. "Acknowledge that they were loved."

As life goes on, each member can find new things to celebrate, such as having grandchildren from their other children. But every milestone is bittersweet.

"Even with my beautiful sons and husband, my holidays and my dog, I feel like I've got grey chiffon over me all the time," says Deena. "My grief is my monument to Ben."

If there's one positive outcome of this grief, it's the ability to more greatly empathise with those who struggle with mental health and addiction issues. Quon runs a blog about loss through drug use and is a TAFE educator in alcohol and drugs. Helena has given a talk to bereavement practitioners.

"I've learned to be less judgmental of other people," says Helena. "I've learned a big lesson and I thank my son for that."

If you are affected by the issues in this story, or would like to enquire about The Supper Club, the Family Drug Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1300 660 068.

* Some names have been changed at the request of those interviewed.

This story 'For most of us it took 10 years for our child to die' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.