'The grief subsides but it never goes away': How families find support online during the fentanyl crisis

After his brother's funeral, Gesar Saunders looked for someone to connect with but couldn't easily find anyone to help share his grief. So, he started an online support group called Fentanyl Victims – We Remember and invited people who had lost a family member or a friend to fentanyl to join.

With the stigma that continues to surround drug use, many are using online groups to find empathy

After losing his brother Merlin (pictured above) Gesar Saunders started a Facebook group for those who had lost a loved one to a fentanyl overdose. (Gesar Saunders)

Two days after last year's Christmas, Gesar Saunders learned his brother Merlin had died of an overdose. He was 26 years old, and had been clean for months. There was a sense of optimism about his recovery. But then he relapsed.

"He didn't go out looking for fentanyl, he was looking for something else. Whatever he took was laced with fentanyl and it ended with his demise," said Saunders.

After his brother's funeral, Saunders looked for someone to connect with. The loss of his brother made his small family even smaller.

"When I was going through the motions of the loss, I was looking to see where the support was where you could go to sort of find empathy, I couldn't find any place."

Saunders started a Facebook group called Fentanyl Victims – We Remember and invited people who had lost a family member or a friend to fentanyl to join.

Gesar Saunders (left) created the Facebook Group after his brother Merlin (right) died of a fentanyl overdose.

"You post something about the person you've lost and people usually reply with condolences or support. From there we built a coalition of people who have suffered," said Saunders.

The group currently has more than 400 members, and Saunders said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

The stories of those who have joined the group range from parents who have lost their child, to partners who have lost their spouses or best friends.

"People have said it's really helped them through the process of losing their child … To know they're not alone and it's brought a sense of purpose."

Fear and stigma

Those who have lost a family member to a drug overdose say there's sometimes a stigma about speaking publicly about it.

Jennifer Woodside lost her son Dylan three years ago to a fentanyl overdose. She said at first, she didn't tell many people except for a few close friends.

"To be honest I was ashamed. I felt like failure. I couldn't believe this could have happened to my son ... and the stigma. He came from a good family," said Woodside.

Woodside said it took nearly a year for her to write a public Facebook post about Dylan's death.

"When we come together as parents and friend ... it gives you safe place to talk about your feelings and to know that it's normal. It's normal that you're feeling buffered."

Jennifer Woodside's son Dylan fatally overdosed when he was 21. Woodside is the co-founder of Moms United and Mandated to Save Drug Users, or MumsDU. (Supplied)

While online forums like the ones started by Saunders are helping people cope with grief, they're also building a community.

Woodside has turned her grief into activism, starting the group MumsDU.

The group is made up of parents who have lost sons and daughters to a drug overdose and tries to raise awareness about drug use and policy.

Saunders has used the Facebook group to gather support for a petition he plans to share with the federal government calling for more support for those with addictions.

"We're being noticed and we're coming together and we're not going to be silenced," said Saunders.

And while some families are channeling their sadness into concrete actions to change drug policy, they say there is something raw that never heals.

"The grief subsides, but it never goes away," said Woodside.

"It changes, maybe it mellows. But it never goes away."