Mom starts Burnaby group for people who've lost loved ones to drugs

Jennifer Woodside has already been through the worst day of her life. It was April 4, 2014, when her 21-year-old son, Dylan, went to sleep and never woke up.

"Nothing can be worse than that day I went through," Woodside said.

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Dylan, a young art student, had developed a taste for ketamine, a drug somewhat popular on the club scene. He was on and off it for about eight months and managed to get through detox, but as Woodside tells it, he did it one more time.

This time, he took oxycodone laced with fentanyl, an additive responsible for the rash of overdoses in Vancouver's heroin-using community last October.

Dylan went to sleep at his father's house on the North Shore, and he never woke up. His girlfriend found him, called 911 and tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late.

When Woodside heard the news, she couldn't believe it.

"It was like a big whoosh when somebody hits you in the stomach," she said. "Losing a child is a horrible experience for any parent, but losing a child this way is really devastating because you blame yourself. Why couldn't I save him? Why did he do it one more time?"

Along with the grief, Woodside felt a sense of shame and stigma surrounding drug use. For the longest time, she told people Dylan's death was an accident.

"It's not a normal death. It took me a while to be able to tell people," she said. "There's a term for this. It's called disenfranchised grief - it's a grief that's not acknowledged by society. Some people can't see past it. They think that person wasn't good, that it's not a good lifestyle, or the parent's not a good person because they allowed this to happen. So there's a lot of guilt."

Woodside scoured the Internet for some kind of support for drug-related deaths, but she couldn't find anything local. That's when she decided to take matters into her own hands.

The retired Port Moody resident is now starting a new chapter of GRASP - Grief Recovery After Substance Passing - a support group for people who've lost someone to drugs or alcohol. Based on statistics from the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., Woodside is not alone. In 2012, illicit drug use caused 319 deaths in B.C., while alcohol caused 1,255. Those numbers have remained fairly stable over the past decade.

Woodside is hosting her first meeting on Thursday, Feb. 12, and she plans to hold regular meetings the second Thursday of every month. While there are GRASP chapters across the U.S., Woodside believes her Burnaby group is the first in Canada.

Woodside is the group's facilitator, and she hopes other parents will be able to share stories of their children and know that it's OK to feel guilt and anger. Woodside asks that people pre-register for the group by emailing graspvancouver@gmail.com.

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