Thursday, May 24, 2012

Death does not get last word

The loss of a loved one, especially of someone young, can leave us at the brink of despair. So overwhelming is the sadness that some of us never find a way to see beyond the grief. The alternative is to resolutely explore the tragedy to find if some good can come of sharing it. This takes a particular strength, for it means having to endure the anguish of the loss with each retelling. The second of these choices was on courageous display at a recent legislative hearing as a number of fathers and mothers recounted the deaths of sons or daughters by overdose.

The issue before the Assembly Judiciary Committee that brought these parents to Trenton was expansion of the state’s Good Samaritan law, which would give immunity to people who call for help should someone in their company suffer a drug overdose. One can well imagine that those testifying would rather have been anywhere, doing anything else than what they were there to do: describe their children’s last hours and know at a core level that the proposal under discussion would have saved their lives.

One woman was clearly shaken at the prospect of sitting before the lawmakers and talking about her son’s overdose. She said under her breath that the legislators intimidated her. More daunting must have been the idea of going in front of a group of strangers to speak about something so personal and so raw that it racked her body. Yet she made her way to the witness table and did just that. She told the panel the stark facts, that instead of someone calling to get medical assistance for her son, “he was left alone to die without the help he needed.” The story embodies the cruelty of having one’s child die coupled with the knowledge that it was preventable.

A father who similarly lost his son followed. He also spoke about the 911 call not made. And after his son died, he recalled lying down with him and feeling the coldness of his body. That image left the hearing room stone silent.

This mother and father each buried a child, seeing the natural order of their world upended. Somehow, having gone through this, they not only did not withdraw but took responsibility for trying to rescue others’ children threatened by what had taken theirs.

Credit should also go to Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, one of the bill’s sponsors. She knows first-hand the experience of a parent seeing a child lost in addiction, but in her case not lost to addiction. At the hearing, she spoke about her son, who, after three separate 911 calls made when he overdosed, has found his way into stable recovery. The Assemblywoman knows well how fortunate she and her family were. She does not pretend to know the depth of loss the witnesses described. But with those stories brought before the legislature, it is impossible to think the Good Samaritan law will be denied in cases of drug overdose for much longer.

- Daniel J. Meara

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