British Columbia

Opioid crisis taking its toll on staff at Kamloops funeral homes

Kamloops funeral home manager Sarah Lawson has been in the industry for 20 years. She says nothing prepared her or her staff for the opioid crisis.

'This is a lot of heavy stuff that we deal with each day,' says area manager

In 2018, 1,535 British Columbians died from an illicit drug overdose. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

In one week, Kamloops funeral home manager Sarah Lawson worked with five families who had lost a loved one to a drug overdose. 

Thousands of British Columbians have died from drug overdoses since the province declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2016. The families of the dead often seek out the services of a funeral home, and Lawson says the body count does take its toll on funeral workers on the front lines.

Lawson manages three funeral homes in the Kamloops area: Shoening Funeral Service, First Memorial and Merritt Funeral Chapel, and has been in the industry for 20 years.

General manager Sara Lawson shows where many of the funerals are held within their building. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

She and the teams she manages deal with tragedies every day, but she says since the opioid crisis was declared the "rise in people dying before the natural progression of things" has staff often feeling 'overburdened" and "helpless."

"This is a lot of heavy stuff that we deal with each day," said Lawson, who said staff have access to grief counselling and that colleagues are constantly looking out for each other and communicating about what they are dealing with.

 "I like to joke that we are like these bleeding hearts that take on people's trauma and just want to help them no matter what," said Lawson. 

Personal connections

But sometimes, as Lawson learned after the week she worked with five overdose families, you have to help yourself.

Lawson, who lost her sister-in-law to a fentanyl overdose, said by the end of that week she was "completely broken." So, she reached out to a friend who ran a drug rehabilitation program and went and spoke to a group of about 70 men in recovery where Lawson said "she just dumped out [her] baggage."

"I don't want you to end up like that," Lawson told the men. "I don't want to do your funerals."

Kamloops funeral home manager Sarah Lawson says the opioid crisis is taking a toll on staff and on herself. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Lawson said almost every colleague of hers in the three homes she manages has a personal connection to someone who has died from an overdose.

Knowing that pain she said, can help "bring a connection" when comforting clients.

"Sometimes sharing ... does take some of the stigma away," said Lawson, who has made a point of reassuring mothers who have lost their children in the crisis.

"This is not your fault," she tells them.

And as emotionally hard as these interactions are, Lawson wants to keep feeling. 

"The day that crisis and tragic death doesn't affect me as a human is the day I don't work here anymore," said Lawson.

In 2018, 1,535 British Columbians died from an illicit drug overdose.

To hear Sara Lawson interviewed by Daybreak Kamloops' Jenifer Norwell see the audio below

The opioid crisis continues to claim the lives of people across the province, impacting families, first responders and medical professionals. But this crisis is also impacting funeral home staff. 6:59

Jenifer Norwell, Daybreak Kamloops


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