Metro Morning

'It picks anyone, any race, any socio-economic background,' says widow of man who died of overdose

The widow of a Toronto man who died of an accidental heroin overdose last year hopes to save others struggling with addiction by sharing her family's story.

Sarah Keast is telling the story of her husband's struggle with heroin in effort to help others

Kevin Keast with his wife Sarah and their two daughters, Brooklyn (left) and Piper (right). Kevin died of an accidental heroin overdose on Aug. 7, 2016. (Courtesy of Sarah Keast)

The widow of a Toronto man who died of an accidental heroin overdose last year hopes to help save others struggling with addiction by sharing the story of her husband's death.

"If we as a society get more comfortable talking about it ... then we can begin to support each other and hopefully not continue to lose people to overdose," said Sarah Keast, 41.

The mother of two young girls, Keast has chronicled her difficult journey through the grief of losing her husband, Kevin, on her blog Adventures in Widowed Parenting. After grappling with that pain for more than a year, Keast wants other families to understand that "addiction is not just a disease of the other.

"It's a disease that doesn't choose a favourite. It picks anyone, any race, any socio-economic background, and it picked my husband," she said. 

Keast's experience is one increasingly shared by many families across Canada. A total of 865 people died of opioid-related deaths in Ontario alone last year, a 19 per cent increase from the previous year, according to figures from the province's chief coroner. 

Facing a mounting death toll, the Ministry of Health recently announced the creation of an emergency task force dedicated to the prevention of overdose deaths and public awareness.

But beyond the efforts of health care experts and front-line workers, Keast wants people to know that simply talking about these issues in a forthright way can sometimes be the first step to saving a life. 

"If we talk more about it, then perhaps someone like Kevin wouldn't keep it inside so long, and let it get to a place that was so bad," she said in an interview with Metro Morning on Tuesday.

Kevin Keast and his family at Canada Day celebrations. (Courtesy of Sarah Keast)

'He was ashamed'

Keast recalls the last time she communicated with her husband. It was Aug. 7, 2016, and the couple had spent a tense weekend in cottage country. Keast suspected then that Kevin, who first used heroin some eight years earlier, had relapsed but wouldn't admit to it. 

He drove back to the city for the work week, she stayed at the cottage with their daughters. Two days went by without a word from Kevin, so a frightened Keast contacted police. Officers found Kevin dead in the couple's Toronto home, apparently of an accidental overdose. He was 36. 

"August 7th was the day I became a widow and the day my two young daughters lost their dad," Keast said in a recent speech to some 100 people at a conference hosted by the Association of Ontario Health Centres, where she was a guest speaker. 

If he had felt more free to discuss his lonely struggle, perhaps Kevin could have succeeded in his recovery, Keast said. Perhaps she would still have the love of her life, and their daughters Brooklyn and Piper, now 6 and 3 years old respectively, would still have their dad. 

Kevin Keast reading with his daughters. (Courtesy of Sarah Keast)

"He was ashamed," she says of his battle with heroin. "I remember after one relapse, us sitting in our family room lying with his head in my lap, crying and crying. A 30-year-old man sobbing, saying, 'I don't want this, I don't want to do this to you. I don't want to die, I don't want to live like this,'" she told host Matt Galloway.

It was moments like that, however painful, that helped their marriage survive through the many perils that addiction brings. 

'It wasn't all of him'

While he couldn't quite articulate why he turned to heroin in his late 20s, Keast suspects it was partly an attempt to find relief from depression and anxiety. 

As the years went on, he tried to press on through the arduous process of recovery. He tried, and that's why Keast stayed with him, despite the relapses.

"I loved him. He was my husband and he was my best friend. I knew him before the addiction, so I knew that this was a disease that —or I learned with time — that this was a disease and it was something that was in him, but it wasn't all of him," she said. 

"I always said to him, I will stick by you if you are trying. If you are trying in your recovery, I will stick by you."

In the end, Kevin lost his life to the substance. But it was only one part of who he was.

"Kevin was — as my oldest says — silly, he was smart. He was a rabid Leafs fan and a rabid Jays fan. He was covered in tattoos. He had his masters in social work. He was a dad, he was a husband, he was a trouble-making middle child of five kids. And he was a person. He was a person with a heart, and he was a person with an addiction."