Over the last few years, Melody Ray has fielded many calls seeking advice on how to talk to kids about addiction and overdose.
With the rise of drug overdoses largely from opioids across the country and Pennsylvania comes the difficult task of explaining those deaths to children who’ve been impacted. Ray is a volunteer coordinator and grief specialist at the Healing Patch, a peer support program in Ebensburg, Cambria County, for children and families whose loved ones have died.
She said she couldn’t find any resources that suggested language for those conversations.
So, she wrote a book. This year she published her book, called “Someone I Love Died From A Drug Overdose.”
The story follows a boy named Tommy and is told from his perspective. He notices his dad taking pills that make him tired. His parents fight. His dad goes, “to a place called rehab.”
Then his mom tells him that his dad went to the hospital and died. Tommy asked how and his mom tells him, “his dad had overdosed on the medications and drugs he was taking.” His mom explained that an overdose “is when you take too much of a medicine or drug and your body stops working or gets very sick.” His mom tells him his dad had a disease called addiction.
Ray said it’s important to name the cause and reason for the death and to be as honest as possible with children.
“A lot of people start with euphemisms which aren’t always helpful. ‘Daddy went to heaven’ or ‘daddy is no longer with us.’ These can be very confusing to children,” she said.
Depending on the child’s age, Ray said adults might need to start with talking about death.
“That daddy no longer needs food, daddy is no longer hungry, that daddy is not sleeping, these types of things,” she said.
Then, children need to know the physical reason for death.
“Sharing this information in small pieces with children … starting with simple matter of fact language we have found to be the most beneficial,” she said.
In the book, Tommy asks his mom if his dad was a bad person for taking drugs.
She assures him that his dad loved him and that, “sometimes grown-ups make bad choices when their brains are addicted to medicine or drugs, and these choices can hurt or kill them.”
“You start with ‘for these specific reasons someone turned to a substance, turning to that substance may have made them make bad choices in their life, but ultimately the disease of addiction is what took their loved one's life’,” she said.
Tommy and his mom reflect on happy memories with his dad, make his favorite foods and go to his favorite restaurants as they cope with the loss together.
“When we recognize that their loved ones were people, that had strengths, that had stories before the substance addiction had taken hold of their lives, and don’t define them by their drug use, that makes it much more healthy for the children to grieve,” she said.
The book also includes writing prompts for children to remember the person who died from an overdose. The prompts ask for the child to describe special memories and asks what they would say to the person if they were alive. The book suggests asking if the child has questions, and lists ways to deal with feelings associated with death.
Since publication, Ray says heard from people across the country about how much they appreciate the book and the acknowledgment that adults need guidance for these hard conversations.