Kelly Taylor couldn’t talk publicly about the fact that two of her sons died of heroin overdoses.
It wasn’t just grief.
She knew people judged her. Self-doubt silenced her.
But Taylor and others who have endured the agony of losing loved ones to the opiate epidemic say there is no longer room for shame and silence.
Trying to shield the reputations of their dead children helps no one. Coming forward with the truth might save a life.
It took almost a year after losing her second son, but Kelly Taylor says she realized she had an obligation to speak out.
“People think that a heroin user is someone who lives under a bridge and that they are garbage people and didn’t matter to anyone,” Taylor said. “They do matter. Our loved ones, my children, were not insignificant, disposable human beings.”
Several dozen people who lost someone close to them to heroin and opioid addiction gathered for a candlelight memorial Saturday evening. Their goal: to put a face to this epidemic and to show people struggling with addiction and their loved ones that they are not alone.
“Our time of silence is over,” said Deb Smith, whose 26-year-old son, Nathaniel, died 11 months ago from an opioid overdose. “We have buried our dead and are saying ‘Enough.’ The only way to save lives is to increase awareness.”
The heroin and opioid epidemic has hit hard throughout Western New York.
A demographic snapshot of the 256 overdose deaths from 2015 handled by the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office determined 221 were white, 17 were black and 18 Hispanic, Asian and “other.” The department said 112 lived in Buffalo.
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Erie County health officials estimate some 400 people will succumb to the heroin-opioid epidemic in the county by the end of this year.
“Only by having the courage to come out and let others know that you and your family have been affected by the same problem as many others in our community have suffered is the only way we are going to be able to address the problem and provide support to one another,” County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said.
Burstein and her staff encouraged those who have lost loved ones to provide The Buffalo News with photographs of the deceased and share stories about them. More than 40 responded.
They were sons and daughters. Brothers and sisters. Some even parents themselves. They went to schools and held down jobs. They had promising futures and they had family and friends who loved them.
Two sons lost
In the space of 80 days, Kelly Taylor lost two sons to heroin overdoses.
On June 22, 2015, Nicholas Taylor, 23, was found dead in his bedroom by his older brother, Ashley Wylie, in the family’s Seneca Babcock home.
After Wylie completed a drug rehabilitation program, he moved to Missouri to begin a new life as a construction worker. He died in Fenton City Park on Sept. 14, 2015.
“People look at you like you are a terrible parent, but don’t you think we judge ourselves?” Taylor said. “People need to be understanding. Nobody knows how much we loved our kids.”
She supports events like Saturday’s vigil because they help erase stigmas that are painful to bear.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, she said. She is angry that the pharmaceutical companies that produce highly addictive painkillers failed to adequately warn the public.
She also acknowledges that her sons played a role in their addictions.
“It will sound terrible, but I feel my sons had some responsibility with what happened to them. I don’t blame my sons for their ends, but I do blame them for their beginnings into addiction. They made poor choices,” she said. “I didn’t raise them to be drug users. As parents, we were not alcoholics or drug addicts. We worked hard and gave them a beautiful life. We lived our lives for our children.”
No more secrets
Deb Smith, whose son Nathaniel became addicted to opioids during treatment for kidney stones, says openness on all levels is a big part of the solution.
“When a loved one says they need help in a moment of mental clarity, before the depth of the addiction grabs them again, we need to offer them detoxification treatment,” she said.
Failure to act, she warned, could result in the loss of an entire generation.
“People should not die anymore from shame,” Smith said. “They did not ask to be addicted.”
Kelly Taylor agrees.
“I like to call this the quiet murder of an entire generation,” she said.