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Guilt Complicates Grief After A Fatal Overdose

Guilt Complicates Grief feature web

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — After someone dies of an overdose, the people they leave behind experience grief riddled with shame and guilt.

"I was not my full self," Alisha Lasky said not talking about her mother’s overdose death dragged her down. "There were times that I felt like I could have been a better mother to my kids, I could have had better relationships with family, if I had just openly talked about it."

Lasky’s mom died when she was 18. They had been fighting for about a month because Lasky was moving out. She said it was what was best for her at the time, to get away from the stress and trauma of a living with someone who is addicted.

She and her mom had a good relationship when Lasky was young, but, as the kids got older, her mom showed less affection and spent more time in isolation. It felt to Lasky like her "true" mom had died long before her body. As Lasky put it, her mom "lost who she was."

But one night, Lasky's mom left her message, saying she loves her.

"And that we should get together, but, I could tell that her voice was slurred and she was high, so I did not call her back."

She got another call the following night, her mom was dead.

"It just replays in the back of my mind, like, 'Hey, if I didn’t moved out I could have saved her.'"

Lasky said she feels guilty about that, and that her mom did not really want her to leave. She also feels culpable because she would refill her mom's prescriptions. A doctor over prescribed painkillers after Lasky's mom suffered several falls and endured six surgeries.

Eliminating Regrets

"The trauma families face throughout the addiction period creates so many regrets for them and so much pain leading up to the loss of their loved one, that it really complicates their grief in so many ways," explained Alexis Pleus, executive director of the advocacy group Truth Pharm.

One of Pleus’ regrets is using the “tough love” approach with her son. He died of an overdose.

"And now, not only do I have to grieve him, but I have to grieve my response to his addiction and my mishandling of providing him the supports that he needed."

Pleus explained there will always be losses to drug use. Her organization tries to eliminate some of the regrets that families faces. At a recent lecture series, Clearing the Confusion, the group addressed the more emotional aspects of caring for someone with addiction, like setting healthy boundaries and self-care, to more practical harm reduction including recognizing an overdose, how to administer naloxone to reverse it, and navigating the criminal justice system. They plan to do another series in January.

Lasky started feeling shame about her mom’s sickness way before she died. She remembered her friends were not allowed to sleep over her house after their parents met her mom.

"I was ashamed and I must’ve been in second grade," Lasky said. "I knew something was wrong with my mom. They knew something was wrong with her."

She did not totally understand at the time, but, she did not talk much about it, concerned she and her siblings would be taken away from the home. Her silence continued after her mom died. At the time, there were not many support groups. Lasky said she held on to how she died because of her shame.

"The conversation leads to 'Well, why? Was she addicted?'” Lasky answers, "Yeah, for all my life." She said she sees other people's response to addiction on social media. Someone close to her family believes people who die of an overdose deserve it.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 450,000 people have died from an opioid overdose from 1999-2018. It is an epidemic.

A Weight Lifted

About two years ago, Lasky finally confided in a co-worker who had also lost a loved one to drugs.

"Right then and there, just—it was like the weight of the world fell off my shoulders."

Now, Lasky talks to a grief counselor, and is off her medication for depression.

When she moved out at 18, it was also, in part, because she had fallen in love. Her then boyfriend, Joshua, is now her husband, and they have two children. Lasky said her kids saved her. They bake together, something she enjoyed doing with her mom. She is not sure how to explain her mother's condition to her kids. Her daughter is becoming a teenager, and Lasky remembers how aware she was of it at that age.

Overall, Lasky feels like she and her mom had a close relationship. Her mom was always doing things for other people. As she put it, "she tried to do some good in the world."

There were many good memories of going to the beach to swim and a family trip to Disney. Some are more complicated like daily drives to the methadone clinic, but Lasky says those drives meant a lot.

"The drives were nice, because it’s just time that you can sit and talk."

Lasky said she has put her grief toward who she wants to be. She recently made a career transition from the hospital to home care. She said she enjoys listening to the stories her elderly patients tell and feels relieved that she is more open about telling her own.

Lasky wonders if opening up even more to her children could save a life in the future. She hopes sharing her story will encourage others grieving after a fatal overdose to talk about their own difficult emotions.