This article was originally published by VICE Canada.
Over the past week, a photo of a woman holding her dying son in a hospital bed after he'd suffered an overdose went viral. The mother, Sherri Kent of Calgary, Alberta, said she wanted to "make everyone aware" and prevent others from doing fentanyl. It's yet another example of the images on social media we have seen proliferate during the opioid crisis, another one that media outlets have eagerly covered.
"My son was not an addict, he made a mistake that cost him his life," Kent wrote on Facebook. "Please share this with your family and friends to help prevent another tragedy." Her post has been shared over 100,000 times so far.
But what does our eagerness to share images like this say about us as a society? Parents and families of overdose death victims are revealing themselves more frequently to the public eye with their personal stories of tragedy, but is this actually mobilizing people, or are we just gawking?
"This is what it's taking today to getting people to look," Donna May, whose daughter died of a drug overdose in 2012, told VICE. "A lot of what goes around is shock and awe with no follow-up, and I was worried that might be the case here."
May, who's become a strong voice in advocacy and action surrounding the opioid crisis in Canada, became a public figure due to her daughter's struggle with addiction and resulting death. As she said, it started with "frustration and anger."
She chose to give a eulogy that addressed drug addiction when her daughter Jac died, refusing to abide by the vague "died suddenly" descriptor seen in many obituaries. (There has also notably been a growing trend during the opioid crisis for families to reject that descriptor in obits, opting to be open about the reality of their loved ones' cause of death.)
May said that though she has photos of her daughter when she was sick in a hospital bed while struggling with addiction and other medical ailments resulting from drug use, she has chosen not to post them on social media. "This mother is really trying to bring awareness to this, but I think it can violate the person who suffered the overdose."
"It's out of control and there is no way to protect our children from this other than to warn them of the dangers of drug use today," Kent wrote in her Facebook post containing the photo of her and her dying son.
As I've been writing this, I've had the notifications on for Kent's viral Facebook post. As the comments have poured in, many strangers said "sorry for your loss," offered prayers, or noted that it could have been anyone's child. (VICE reached out to Kent for comment, who did not return our request.)
Undoubtedly, everyone has the right to grieve however they so choose. Grief is messy. Social media makes this process even more complicated as we grapple with respecting one another's choices in expressing our pain. But if we truly care and are not just here to gawk, sympathizing is not enough. We need action from our government, action that May has been fighting for tirelessly. This public health crisis—though the federal government has refused so far to declare it officially as such—will continue to take lives without the proper steps taken: putting a focus on harm reduction, increasing access to proper treatment, reducing stigma, and moving toward alternative drug policies such as decriminalization and legalization and regulation (and no, I'm not talking about cannabis).
May said that she prefers to post photos of parents and tell the story of how they lost their child, rather than sharing shocking images of victims of overdose or addiction. But without the shock value, images related to the opioid crisis usually don't get viral attention.
"From my own experience working with the federal government… They aren't responding to the nice pictures and the calm and cute pictures," May said. "It makes me feel like giving up because it feels like a waste of my energy; I've been working at this for five years now, and it's gotten worse instead of better."
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