ELKTON — Her fiance. Her soul mate. His fellow combat veteran. Her best friend’s son. Her own son.
Friends, family and community members gathered at dusk on Monday at Elkmore Marina on the banks of the Elk River to light candles remembering these and other lives lost to overdose. Voices of Hope, a nonprofit which supports addiction recovery in Cecil County and throughout Maryland, organized the seventh annual vigil.
Cecil County lost 59 lives to overdose during 2019, and Voices of Hope Peer Recovery Specialist Brittany Graves worries that number will be much higher during 2020, in part because coronavirus creates additional challenges to those who use substances like heroin and opioids.
“Everybody is isolated,” Graves said. “When you use, sometimes that just pushes you a little further.”
After months of outreach and education through Zoom, Voices of Hope decided that the vigil should take place in person. Graves hoped the gathering would show those struggling with addiction or the loss of a loved one to overdose that they are not alone.
“It’s been hard for the families because usually throughout the year, if an overdose happens we try to reach out to them and go see them. With COVID, we can’t do that,” she said. “It’s just really important for us to come together in one area because you need that connection. There’s a connection you don’t get on the computer.”
New Beginnings Christian Fellowship Pastor Phil Meekins led a prayer, and a number of attendees shared words about the loved ones they lost to overdose.
One woman lost her son in October.
He was an avid reader and wanted to become a neuroscientist to help others fight addiction, a disease which affects the brain’s neural pathways. She said that he used Narcan, a narcotic which can be used in emergencies to treat overdose, to save the lives of two friends in the months before his death, and used Saran wrap to save a stranger who suffered stab wounds.
“Three people are still alive on this planet because of my kid,” she said. “I wish he was still here.”
Another woman spoke about her fiance, who overdosed in 2014.
He was a great guy, she said, and had everything going for him. He worked building houses, and started taking pain medication after a bad fall hurt his back. As the pain went away, he began using heroin and passed away on the way to the hospital after an overdose. Years later, she herself overdosed and woke up to see her pregnant daughter crying.
“That sent me on the road to getting clean, and thank God I’m here today,” she said. “My granddaughter was born and I was still here for it. Whatever you do, just keep working at recovering.”
As they spoke, others wrote the names of their own lost loved ones on colorful paper bags, along with messages of remembrance. The bags were each illuminated with small electrical candles and arranged in a heart as the sun set. Rob and David Massimiano played music while attendees chatted, and then Pastor Meekins closed the night with a prayer.
Jennifer Lepore is a Voices of Hope organizer who hosts Healing Hearts, a small group meeting on the first and third Wednesday of every month for anyone who has lost a loved one to overdose or substance abuse. She said people often feel isolated or judged when they go through that loss.
“Coming to an event like this — you’re seeing a lot of people, you’re seeing a lot of families, all different ages, different incomes. Everybody’s different, but they all have that in common,” she said. “It makes you feel better knowing other people understand where you are and what you’ve been through.”
Lepore and her fellow Voices of Hope organizer Lynn Jones emphasized that building community in person is critical amid the challenges of the pandemic, especially given reports that the number of overdose deaths in the county this year may rise sharply from 2019.
After losing her son, Jones said, she relied on others who reached out and helped her through her grief. Now, she’s working to help others.
“There’s lots of other people — parents, brothers and sisters, friends — whose loved ones have died of overdose,” Jones said. “You are not alone.”