The following is part of a monthly series probing the financial and emotional costs of overdose deaths. We welcome reader feedback as we continue to probe this difficult subject.
The plea from the born-again Christian from Lowber was desperate and different, but it was a long time coming.
“My prayer every night was, God, teach me how to be a mom,” Erica Kindred remembers.
Kindred’s daughter, Nicole Johnston, died in 2014 at age 26, losing her battle with drug addiction and leaving behind two children for Kindred to raise.
But Kindred hadn’t been the primary caregiver for Nicole, her only child.
Kindred’s grandparents, Charles and Sophia Zaken, took on the primary caregiver role for Nicole, whose father also suffered from addiction as she was growing up, Kindred said. Nicole named her daughter Sophia after her grandmother and gave her son Joseph a middle name of Charles to show what her great-grandparents, who also raised Kindred, meant to her.
Now Nicole was gone, and her children’s father had died of an overdose in 2012, Kindred said, just a month after their youngest, Joseph, was born.
So Kindred learned how to be a mother, a generation after she became one.
“At first I struggled with, I am their grandmother but I play the role as their mother,” Kindred said. “And it took me a while to get to that place to be able to say that, no, I’m not their mother, but I do play the role of their mother because that’s what they need here.”
Kindred’s granddaughter attends Church Christian Academy in Sutersville and Joseph will start kindergarten there next year. Kindred noticed many students at the academy are adopted because addiction has divided up their families.
“The stigma is lessening because you’re going to go to school and you’re going to see a classroom of kids raised by their grandparents or somebody else,” Kindred said.
She is still concerned about how and when she will let her grandchildren know why their mother died. Sophia has already asked.
“I’ll say she was sick,” Kindred said. “And she’s getting old enough to where she’ll say, ‘What kind of sick?’ And then that’s where I have to draw the line and just say, ‘Well, she was just sick, and that’s what we’re going to talk about for now. And when you get a little bit older, we’ll talk about what kind of sick that was.’”
Tami Puckey of Belle Vernon fears that same future conversation.
Tami’s daughter Jenna Puckey died of an overdose at in 2013 at age 22. Jenna’s daughter was 3 at the time, and still doesn’t know how her mom died. Tami and her husband had been granted physical custody of their granddaughter in 2012, but have always been the girl’s primary caregivers due to Jenna’s addiction to pills and eventually heroin.
“I think that the hardest thing for them is, and I’ve already heard it, (is) when someone says to her, ‘Where’s your mom?’” Puckey said. She didn’t want to use her granddaughter’s name publicly out of fear that she’ll find out how her mom died from someone at school. “And she’ll look at me with these big brown eyes and doesn’t know what to say.”
Puckey grieves not just her daughter but for her granddaughter, what she calls a “double hit.”
“When I sit and I think, kindergarten registration, first tooth, all these firsts for her – I just wish Jenna could have been here to enjoy it. It breaks my heart.”
Puckey knows her granddaughter will start to get curious soon about why her mother died. Telling her why will be the start of her drug education.
“We’re losing a whole generation,” Puckey said. “And it’s the generation to follow that we have to worry about.”
Wishing they would have been there
Westmoreland County had 174 fatal accidental overdoses in 2016 and 300 in the last two years. Fatal accidental overdoses have increased 691 percent there since 2002. Washington County was the site of 109 deaths by overdose in 2016 according to the county coroner’s office, comprising nearly 18 percent of all overdoses in the county in the past 25 years in just a 12-month span, and numbering as many as the previous two years combined.
Fatal overdoses are ravaging the Mon Valley more than ever, putting an onus on school counselors and administrators to support students devastated by a loved one’s battle with addiction or drug-induced death.
Stephanie McHugh, counselor at Belle Vernon Area High School, estimated that a dozen students there have lost a loved one to an overdose in her nearly four years at the school. Julie Thieser, guidance counselor at Monessen Elementary Center, estimated that between three and five students lost a loved one to a fatal overdose within the 2016-17 school year.
“I think if you were to research the statistics on the ages of the people that are overdosing, you might be surprised,” Yough Senior High School Principal Earl Thompson said. “You might find that students at this age are more victims of the fallout of addiction as opposed to the ones overdosing.”
Thompson is right, at least regarding fatal overdoses.
Of Westmoreland County’s 174 fatal overdose victims in 2016, 130 were 31 or older; five were 20 or younger, according to the Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office. Of Washington County’s 109 victims in 2016, 84 were 30 or older; three were under the age of 20, according to the Washington County Coroner’s Office.
Overdoses are claiming parents, tragedies that noticeably impact students during school.
“Sometimes there are feelings of guilt, like I wish I would have been there – maybe they wouldn’t have overdosed, help would have come sooner,” McHugh said. “So those feelings of guilt can really complicate the feelings of grief and loss the students are already feeling at the death.”
Parental drug abuse wears on local students, devastating them well before a fatal overdose. Thieser observed that students with a loved one dealing with addiction at home may exhibit hygiene issues, in addition to anxiety caused by being away from home if their parents have suffered a previous overdose.
“They don’t want to leave their parents alone,” Thieser said. “’What if something happens when I’m gone? What if I’m not there to help them?’”
McHugh has noticed students with a loved one suffering from addiction contend with sleep issues, often taking on the role of mom or dad for younger siblings, not getting a chance to be a kid themselves.
“You’ve got a lot of questioning authority and really challenging any adult because adults have been proven in the student’s life to be unreliable, and part of abuse and addiction is manipulation and lying,” McHugh said.
Janet Sardon, superintendent at Yough, has seen more of the opposite, with students suffering from familial drug abuse generally embracing school as a “safe haven.”
“We’ve seen in those cases that kids use this as kind of a getaway, a place to go where it’s safe and they feel comfortable and they get involved in activities to have something outside of home,” Sardon said.
Local school administrators and counselors said they use the state-mandated Student Assistance Program (SAP), in which staffers assigned to be team members identify problems such as home drug abuse and may refer students when appropriate to additional counseling agencies such as Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services (SPHS) for further assessment.
Counselors and administrators, including Charleroi Area High School Principal Patricia Mason, lauded SAP’s ability to address student issues stemming from drug use at home. But Mason said sometimes parents refuse to sign off on the SAP process, effectively ending it since it requires parental consent. A SAP team member herself, Mason said that even when parents deny action through SAP, she will still call the student to try to help them problem-solve.
“We don’t give up on the kid,” Mason said.
But the prevalence of drug abuse in student homes has taken an emotional toll on school staff as well.
“It’s mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting to hear what kids are going through, see their pain and not take every single one of them home with us,” Mason said. “When we get home, we’re thinking about those kids.”
“I go home and I play with my kids and we do homework,” McHugh said. “And I find myself thinking of the students I serve and some of them really having a very different life after 3 p.m. than what I’m experiencing myself.”
“It could be anybody”
Jake Watkins was 17 and about to start his senior year of high school at Charleroi Area in 2015 when his older brother Brooks died at 21 of an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl at their Fallowfield Township home.
Brooks’ family didn’t know he had been using. His parents never saw any warning signs as he made plans to join the Navy, and his father John said neither the coroner nor funeral director found any needle marks on him.
Jake had never lost any close family member before, let alone the closest of all. Just like that, his only sibling who would knock on the wall separating their rooms to say goodnight and add a few curse words, was gone.
“Any problems I’d have, I’d talk to him, with like girls and stuff like that,” Jake, now a student at California University of Pennsylvania, says matter-of-factly in the Watkins’ living room. “He was like the rough draft in my life, because he already went through everything, and I’d just ask him everything and he was always there.”
When Brooks died, his parents got Jake counseling, including a successful connection with a counselor at Cal U.
“Therapy helped him,” said Brooks and Jake’s mother Amy, who drug tests Jake regularly now, finding out that he has been clean. “Talk therapy helped him a lot.”
Jake said high school guidance counselors Janet Toth and Gina Cotton were “really outgoing and really cool” and that their door was always open, helping him feel safe if he needed to talk to someone.
“They just said, ‘If you need to talk, just let me know,’” Jake recalls of their response to his brother’s death his senior year. “Every teacher I had did that.”
But Jake warns that even if the school messaging and response to tragedies among students is what it’s supposed to be, there’s still one persistent issue.
“It’s the students that just don’t care,” Jake said.
Jake and Brooks’ parents were disappointed with what they said was a low turnout – about 35 people – at a drug awareness forum at the high school they spoke at two months after Brooks’ death, one of 11 times Amy’s given a speech in the past two years about Brooks’ fatal secret.
“They’ll fill a funeral home but they won’t fill an awareness session,” John said.
One of Jake’s grandfathers was president of Cal U from 1976 to 1992 and the other was a state policeman. The latter now has multiple myeloma, a blood cancer causing severe pain as his bones become brittle.
“But he’s so afraid to take a pain pill,” Amy says of his father. “Because his thing is he doesn’t want to end up like Brooks.”
Jake wants school districts to emphasize that any family can lose someone to addiction, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
“It could be anybody,” Jake says. “That’s just the main point that they have to get across.”
The fear that remains
Sitting on Tami Puckey’s entertainment center is a framed photo of her late daughter Jenna. On a shelf below, an angel figurine sits next to a framed photo of Jenna’s daughter.
In the same living room that Tami got the call about Jenna’s death four years ago, she sits in front of those photos choking back tears while thinking of the negative comments she’s seen below articles posted on Facebook about addiction and overdoses.
“I mean, literally, that will knock me down for weeks,” Puckey says. “I’ll cry every day for weeks. It’s a punch in the gut. They just don’t get it. ‘They deserve to die.’ That’s one of the worst.”
One of Puckey’s biggest fears is the parents of her granddaughter’s classmates not wanting their children to play with her because her mom died of an overdose.
Above all else, Puckey hopes school won’t be a place that haunts her granddaughter with the stigma of addiction and how it took her mother away – and that drug education and prevention is her takeaway there instead.
“If we can stop it with those kids, maybe it will end,” Puckey says. “Maybe there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”