Overdose Memorial Spreads Message of Hope

February 20, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

A powerful symbol of the scale of B.C.’s overdose emergency extends along a stretch of highway on Vancouver Island.

It includes almost four thousand pieces of twine – each for a person who lost their life to overdose in Canada in 2017 – and over 100 brightly-coloured flags with names of people who have died. At one end of the display is a group of white flags, each representing a person predicted to die of overdose in B.C. in any given week.

The 120-foot display hangs from Comox resident Judith Conway’s garden fence; a touching memorial to the lives that have been lost to overdose. It shows the devastating number of people and families that have been affected. And it has also been a way for Judith to process her own grief.

Judith’s eldest son, Matthew, died of overdose on November 5, 2017. His eulogy reads:

Matthew was a strong, wonderful, good-looking, helping, caring and hard-working young man...He was a true bright light in this world. He was afflicted by this disease and struggled for years to fight it.

Matthew had previously faced problems with alcohol, but it wasn’t until after a serious accident that he began using opioids. Matthew was placed in an induced coma for three days, before being prescribed OxyContin for pain.

“Everything spiralled from there,” Judith reflects. “Before he died, he had been in recovery a couple of times, and had been doing really well. But it just takes one time.”

Following Matthew’s death, Judith felt that she had to find a way to show the impact of the overdose emergency. With help from friends and a coalition of mothers called Moms Stop The Harm, she built the display. She wanted to open peoples’ minds to the struggles of those experiencing substance use challenges.

The idea behind the display is to show visually what’s happening, that overdoses aren’t just statistics…It’s my way of getting the message across that this is happening to a lot of people.

By showing the impact of the overdose crisis, and that addiction can happen to anyone, Judith hopes to break down the stigma that keeps addiction underground.

“I want people to start talking. I want this stigma and this silence to stop,” says Judith. “I know, personally, people whose children have died of overdose and they are shrouded in silence afterwards. They are dealing with the shame of their child having a substance use problem.”

“I’m just a regular person. I’m not that picture of what society thinks people with addictions and their families look like. The picture out there is me and my husband, and we lost a child.”

From Matthew’s loss, has grown a message of hope and healing. Since creating the display, Judith has had many conversations with people who have suffered their own loss due to overdose. People have praised her and the need for substance use awareness. Judith thinks some people’s negative attitudes toward addiction have changed.

As the final words of Matthew’s eulogy reflect, these conversations are both necessary to create a better future, and fitting tributes to Matthew’s memory.

“We must, as a society, become more informed about this disease. Stop judging. Stop blaming. Join together to find better solutions for this ever-changing world.

Matthew, we miss your bright light. The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.