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Son’s OD Death Sparks Mom’s Support Group

Searching for way to deal with grief, she turned to helping others

She decorated. She baked. She shopped and wrapped presents. But no amount of Christmas joy could help Tammie Elkins overcome the “life-altering” loss of a child, especially not during the holidays.

It’s a grief so tangible, you can see it as Elkins catches her breath between sobs while talking about her 24-year-old son, Matthew Cotter. “Matthew was smart, creative, kind, loved his family, but so loved his mama. ... I miss him,” Elkins said.

Her youngest son also had an addiction and overdosed on a deadly mixture of opioids in the early hours of Dec. 31, 2017. “I know that there are families here (who have lost children to addiction). ... No one understands better like a parent who has gone through it,” said Elkins, who is starting OD Hope, a support group Jan. 8 for families like hers. The first meeting is set for 6 p.m. Jan. 8 at 520 W. Lytle St., Suite B in Murfreesboro. For more information about the addiction loss support group, contact Elkins at 615- 430-5603. Over the 24 months since her son died, Elkins — a licensed family therapist — has read numerous books and articles on grief and loss from addiction

“If your child died this way it’s completely different than anything else because of what came before,” said Elkins, tears streaming down her face. The lying. The stealing. Broken promises and going missing for days without communication — these byproducts of addiction leave families in a constant state of fear, with a heavy dose of shame.

Elkins found solace when she read “Heartbroken: Grief and Hope Inside the Opioid Crisis.”

The book is a collection of stories from families in the Heartlinks Grief Center’s Addiction Loss Support Group near St. Louis. One of the parents in the group authored the book with help from Diana Cuddeback, a director of Heartlinks Grief Center, and Matthew Ellis. “I was like, ‘Gosh, there’s a support group somewhere? I have to go,’ ” said Elkins, who visited in October 2019. “I walked out of the room that night feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders just from participating in the group.”

People often view addiction as a character flaw. So the deaths are stigmatized, leaving families to often suffer in silence, Cuddeback said. In the addiction loss group, the participants don’t have to suffer alone. “They can hear each other’s stories with compassion … and knowing how that child died, they saw them as full human beings, wonderful parts and messy parts,” said Cuddeback, a licensed therapist who leads the group. Talking with people who have similar experiences — even laughing about some of the brokenness of having a child with addiction problems — is helpful.

A tragic night

A need to talk sometimes means remembering the fateful night when Elkins’ son died. He had been in and out of treatment more times than Elkins can count. But the last go-round of sobriety lasted for eight solid months when he was living with his mother and stepfather in 2017.

“Things were good. He was going to (recovery) meetings and he had made friends,” Elkins said, her face red from crying. Cotter’s brother had just gotten married the month before and it looked like the year was ending on a positive note. Elkins was relishing having her son home for the holidays. He’d been in treatment in California a few years prior. Cotter, his mother and stepfather had settled in for the evening on the night before New Year’s Eve. “We had takeout. ... We watched TV together. The two of them were taking the tree down,” Elkins recalled, clutching her son’s photograph. As she lightly napped, Elkins heard her son talking about memories of each ornament as they packed them away. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘We’ve beat this, and my son is OK. We’re going to be one of the ones who made it,’ “ Elkins said, wiping tears away. During the evening, Cotter got a text and told his mother he was going to meet a friend who was moving. He’d be gone only two hours, he said.

Elkins’ heart sank. But she waited up, and he came home as promised by midnight. “He hugged me in the kitchen and kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘I love you, Mom. Are we going to church tomorrow?’ “ Temperatures were in the single digits that day. So they opted to stay home from church New Year’s Eve morning. Cotter was in his room sleeping, or so they thought. So the couple didn’t bother him and went to eat. When they returned, Elkins asked her husband to check on Cotter, who still hadn’t emerged from his room. “He went upstairs and then he’s yelling, ‘Call 911.’ I didn’t go up there. I’m glad I didn’t. A lot of parents have been the ones who found their child,” Elkins said, sobbing again. They called for their neighbor, a nurse, who performed CPR until paramedics could arrive.

“But he was already gone,” Elkins said, her voice shaking. “Seven days later I buried my son.” An autopsy would reveal Cotter had unknowingly ingested the lethal drug fentanyl that was in something he bought that night. Murfreesboro Police Department reported seven people had overdosed that same night. Cotter was one of six who died from that deadly cocktail.

Searching for hope

Two years after burying her son, Elkins is looking for hope through the support group. In addition to talking about the loss and addiction, Cuddeback said her group also offers resources, which Elkins plans to do as well. “I want there to be a group of parents who can be there for one another. Period. It’s needed. I need it today,” Elkins said.

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