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For Families of Overdose Victims, a More-Focused Network of Support is Available

The overwhelming number of overdose deaths across East Tennessee in the last few years has meant a growing number of families are mourning the loss of their loved ones — and searching for ways to process their grief.

For families of overdose victims in Knox County, a network of support emerged through a combined effort between the Knoxville Police Department, the Office of the 6th District Attorney General and people inspired to help others.

Filling a void

In November 2017, KPD’s Drug Related Deaths Task Force joined with Knox County Attorney General Charme Allen’s office to create a support group for families of people who had died from overdoses. The decision came after 237 suspected overdose deaths were reported in Knox County in 2016, which was followed by 293 in 2017 and 290 in 2018, according to the DA’s office.

That increase left many families looking for help.

KPD Sgt. Josh Shaffer said many of them felt uncomfortable in the support groups for families of violent crime victims or other tragedies because of the stigma surrounding drugs and overdoses.

“There would be groups for families that had lost someone to illness or lost someone to murder or things like that, or just parents dealing with the death of a child generally, but because of the stigma that exists around drugs themselves, a lot of the time, the families said they were apprehensive to openly share,” Shaffer said.

“When we realized there was this void that was there, as the police department, we basically said that if this void exists, we need to fill it somehow.”

Undoing stigma, extending support

At the time, Shaffer was in touch with Sharon Hajko, who lost her son Justin Hajko to an overdose in January 2017, among many other families of overdose victims. From there, with the support of Tracee Smith, a victim and witness coordinator for the DA’s office, a support group focused specifically on families of overdose victims emerged.

Sharon Hajko of Knoxville speaks about her son's overdose and the grief she experiences before Knoxville's Drug Overdose Support Group, in the Knoxville Police Department Safety Building, Friday, March 8, 2019.

“When Justin first passed away and Sgt. Shaffer would call me to update me on what they had found out, I was constantly asking him, ‘What can I do?’” Hajko said. “He was hearing that more and more (from families), and it weighed heavily on him and Tracee, so they talked about it. It was KPD Chief David Rausch, at the time, and Charme Allen, and they both wholeheartedly backed us.”

“We’ve had awesome support from them,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without (Tracee) sometimes.”

Hajko said that a lot has changed in the last few years about how people view overdose victims, and that the emergence of the opioid epidemic has coincided with a better understanding of addiction as a disease. Still, she said the group fills an important need because the stigma around overdose victims as junkies and thrill-seekers persists.

Bracelets are shown that promote drug overdose awareness before Knoxville's Drug Overdose Support Group, in the Knoxville Police Department Safety Building, Friday, March 8, 2019.

“I can understand how people may come by that, in all fairness, because I’ve seen my son at his worst. He could be awful, but I knew if he was going to steal, he was going to steal from me, not anybody else,” Hajko said. “Some of the things that would come out of his mouth made me wonder, ‘Where’s my son? What have you done with him?’ But I remember the good times, and those people who are saying the awful things didn’t see that part of him.”

Removing that stigma is important in helping people who have lost loved ones to overdoses process grief and find healthy ways to cope with it, Shaffer said. While the stigma can help people understand the danger that drugs like heroin and opioids present, Shaffer said, it does far more harm when extended to the families of overdose victims.

“The big thing to destigmatize is that it’s not the family’s fault,” Shaffer said. “Even if we want to talk accountability to the user, what we need as a society is to realize that it’s still a void that’s there and that just because their child died of a drug overdose and not a car wreck, doesn’t make the pain or loss any less.”

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