Brought together by heartache: How moms who lost children to drugs are helping each other heal
'We can just be who we are and if we're hurt, we're hurt, but they understand it'
There are times when Susan Engstrom is driving to work, singing along to a song and feeling pleased with life for a moment, when all of a sudden it hits: The unbearable pain and trauma she felt the moment she realized she'd lost her son forever.
"I realize it's real," Engstrom said. "It just rides up and it's like it happened just now and my body responds … like it's happening all over again."
Her son Jesse Mrazek, 25, died after a fentanyl overdose three years ago.
Engstrom hadn't been able to reach him, so she went to his Osborne Village apartment. His door was unlocked.
"I went into his apartment and I was saying, 'Please, please don't let anything be wrong,' " Engstrom said.
"I stepped in. I looked around. I looked at his bed and when his bed was empty, I just said, 'Thank you,' and as I turned, I found Jesse on the floor and he had been gone for three days already."
Susan talks about losing her son Jesse to a drug overdose:
Engstrom knew Jesse struggled with drug use. He had tried to get help but like so many others, he lost the battle, she said.
"He had friends everywhere and they loved him, so he was very fortunate that he had that," said Engstrom. "But I feel so unfortunate not to have him.... I miss him every day. I miss him every minute."
On a crisp, sunny December afternoon, Engstrom sits among a group of women gathered around a table decorating Christmas cookies in a home in Riverview. Six of the women here share an experience they wish they didn't: Their children overdosed on drugs and died.
Now these mothers are part of a group of women who meet to find comfort. On this day, it's to decorate angel-shaped cookies in honour of their children. Other times it can be a meal or simply coffee.
Engstrom first started meeting with the women roughly two years ago. At first she hesitated, but after a couple of dinners, she realized the importance of being around people who knew what she was facing.
"When you lose a child, you lose a part of yourself," said Engstrom. "The way that you govern yourself is different, it's different with the people you love, it's different at work. So you have to find a place where you can just be yourself....
"You're damaged, you're hurt and the family around you is hurt and you need to take care of each other, and these ladies have made it so that we can just be who we are and if we're hurt, we're hurt, but they understand it."
Barb Ashley calls it the club you never want to belong to. Nevertheless, she said meeting these women has been the most helpful as she grieves.
Her son Robert, 26, died in January after overdosing on a cocktail of drugs.
"I found it much more helpful than counselling," Ashley said. "These women have been through the same thing, so I can come and I can cry and I can not cry. They just get it. Just very few people do."
Robert had tried several avenues to get help for his drug use, Ashley said.
He had arranged for himself to get treatment in British Columbia, but when he returned to Winnipeg, he relapsed. He tried visiting the emergency department, the city's crisis response centre, and wanted to get into a program offered by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, she said.
Barb on how her son tried to get help before he died:
"Really until the end, I really didn't know that he was struggling as much as he was," Ashley said.
"You know, people tend to think that people with addictions are weak. It's really the opposite. Just to get through every day and to look for that help continuously and the hoops that you have to jump through, you really need an advocate."
There needs to be immediate help for people who want to stop using drugs, she said.
Her son was contacted by the addictions foundation about a program he had been interested in, she said, but he was already in hospital for what turned out to be the overdose that led to his death.
"These kids can't wait," Ashley said.
That's the same message Arlene Last-Kolb has been repeating over and over through the media, at awareness events and to government officials.
Her son Jessie Kolb, 24, died from a fentanyl overdose a little more than four years ago.
"He was compassionate and caring and he was a lot of fun," Last-Kolb said.
The women have come to her home to decorate cookies, to share, to listen.
"December is such a really hard month and I just wanted to have us all come together so that we could honour our children and just be together," Last-Kolb said.
"When you lose a child, you can't understand it unless it's happened to you, so you really need to seek out people like yourself.... We want to remember our children. We don't want them to be forgotten."
When Jessie died, Last-Kolb didn't know any other mothers in Winnipeg who had children who died from a drug overdose, so she got involved with a national group and connected with other moms in Canada. Over time, through media, word of mouth, victim's services and at events, she's helped bring this group of Manitoba women together.
"When Jessie passed away from fentanyl, I knew there was going to be more, I just knew it," she said.
"It was very sad.... More and more passed away and this is how I end up with a group like this, and this is only half of the group. The other half just couldn't make today."
Last-Kolb makes a point to email the families to mark birthdays and the days their children died. The parents are at different stages of grief, she said, but they're there for each other.
"We need to come together and realize we're still here, we're still living, we have to go on and I hope that, the hope is that others will see that you can go on," she said. "It's not easy, but you can."
Tracy Sanderson calls Last-Kolb her angel.
Sanderson found her daughter Alexandria, 18, dead in her bed five years ago. She had overdosed on fentanyl.
While she knew one of her other daughters struggled with addiction, she had no idea Alexandria was using drugs too.
"When I picked her up a piece of foil came off of her mouth," Sanderson said. "Because my other daughter was in active addiction, I knew exactly what that was, so I knew exactly what had happened to Alex."
Alexandria graduated high school with honours, worked part-time at a women's shelter and was a student at the University of Winnipeg when she died.
"My daughter was an amazing, beautiful, smart, loyal girl," said Sanderson, who has a picture of her daughter tattooed on her arm.
Stigma stopped her family from telling people what really happened to Alexandria for three years.
Tracy speaks about losing her daughter, 18, to a fentanyl overdose:
Instead, the family told people Alexandria had died from the residual effects of a car accident she'd been in the day before she died.
Hearing stories about other young people overdosing eventually made Sanderson decide to tell the truth.
"The feeling that I had inside every time another child died from a fentanyl overdose, it killed me over again and it killed me over again because I couldn't say, 'Oh my God, we need to do something about this.' I couldn't say that," she said.
"Once I started telling people, it was like all the toxins in my body left."
That's when she met Last-Kolb — she wanted to get involved in an event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day and she found Last-Kolb's contact number on a website.
"It's so therapeutic for me," Sanderson said about spending time with the other moms.
"To be able to share with new moms that come in.... It feels good to say 'You're gonna be OK,' and be able to say, 'I was there where you were and you're going to be able to go through it and this is how you're going to get through.' "
Engstrom stands looking at a framed picture of her son. He's smiling and wearing sunglasses.
She will forever remember him as her boy with an incredible heart and an old soul.
"He had a big dimple," she said. "He was a beautiful boy."
Like all these women, Engstrom is trying to navigate life without her child the best she can.
While they're here decorating cookies, what they're showing each other is they aren't alone.