2021 | Events

In vigil for lives lost to overdose, families left behind share their pain

Event organized by members of Surviving Our Ultimate Loss

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Simone Russ, left, and Elena Suarez remember Simone's sister Colette Russ at Thursday night's vigil. Colette died last year of a drug overdose at 19 years old. Elena is the mother of Simone and Colette.

Photos By Steve Bohnel

After roughly two hours hearing from parents and relatives who lost loved ones to fatal overdoses, several dozen people formed a line under a large tent at Memorial Plaza in Rockville.

It had been an emotional night. Those with relatives and siblings who died due to a drug overdose hugged and shed tears. The night was capped by a line of solidarity — people with lit electronic candles, approaching a podium and stating their loved ones’ names, so they would never be forgotten.

Wendy Winter of Olney lost her son, Seth, to a fentanyl overdose on April 29, 2020, at age 20. Seth started using marijuana going into ninth grade, then graduated to Xanax before he died, Winter said.

She urged people not to stigmatize someone addicted to drugs.

“If you know somebody who is suffering from substance abuse, don’t judge them,” Winter said in an interview. “There’s usually a story behind why they’re using. Encourage them to talk to a professional about it.”

Winter was one of the speakers at an event hundreds of people attended in Rockville Thursday night, organized by members of Surviving Our Ultimate Loss (S.O.U.L.).

S.O.U.L. is a local group of mothers, fathers and others who have lost relatives and friends to fatal overdoses. It also includes advocates for greater resources to combat the opioid epidemic. 

Many speakers Thursday said the coronavirus pandemic worsened the crisis, as those at risk were more isolated and found it harder to get resources and treatment.

According to state data, Montgomery County had 86 opioid-related deaths in 2019. That increased to 108 deaths in 2020. 

Elena Suarez of Bethesda lost her daughter, Colette, to an overdose on Aug. 26. She was 19.

Near Memorial Plaza in Rockville, a commemorative photo gallery honors those who have died of a drug overdose. It will stand through Sept. 30.

Elena and Simone Russ, Colette’s sister, described the challenges of Colette’s addiction. They called for more advocacy, from better policy to more funding for treatment, and for more awareness of the issue.

Elena said Colette was a beautiful soul and selfless person who had been in and out of treatment seven or eight times. The last time she saw her, Colette told her mother to stop worrying about her future — and focus on her own life.

“With those words, my daughter gave me back my life,” Elena said. “And I plan to honor her wishes by living the most purposeful and as joyous [a] life as I can.”

Simone vowed to remember her sister in her best moments, as a caring, humble person.

“Even though the drugs made you desperate, and there were terrifying things that happened to get that brief relief, your true personality, your soul always shine through the fog,” Simone said. “Those later moments will never define you.”

Several government and elected officials spoke at the event about the importance of raising awareness about the issue, and increasing resources for those in need, especially given the challenges of the pandemic.

Colette Russ died of a drug overdose on Aug 26, 2020. She was 19.

They included U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park), whose son, Tommy Raskin, died by suicide on New Year’s Eve last year. In a prerecorded video message, Jamie Raskin thanked those in attendance for being so “outspoken and lucid” about the issue. 

Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said that even as the numbers of overdose deaths increase, those statistics are not as powerful as the presence of those who gathered Thursday. And people in Montgomery County will not stop the fighting, Crowel said.

Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Germantown) said the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic have weighed on everyone. When school shut down last year, he remembered his 8-year-old daughter crying because she couldn’t see her friends.

The pandemic has been a burden for people with mental illness and substance abuse, Reznik said. New laws and funding can help, but the issue will take multiple solutions, he added.

“There is no piece of legislation, there is no magic wand that can make this go away,” Reznik said. 

Even as the event was a remembrance of those lost, it was also a celebration of those continuing to battle addiction — and succeeding.

One of the program’s last speakers, Liam Johnson, was a 2021 graduate of the Montgomery County Public Schools Recovery and Academic Program. The program connects students at risk with resources and support services to treat their addiction.

He said his addiction has led to “ups and downs.” He thanked those in attendance for shining a light on opioid and substance abuse.

“I would like to just thank everybody who came out here today to support this cause, because without the proactive people like you guys, the attention that this issue deserves will never be paid,” Johnson said.

Moments later, S.O.U.L. repaid that thanks. NBC4 News anchor Doreen Gentzler, the MC for the evening, announced that S.O.U.L. has set up a fund to help Johnson pursue his educational goals. 

Wendy Winter speaks during Thursday night’s vigil. Her son Seth died of a drug overdose on April 29, 2020. He was 20.

After the ceremony ended, roughly a few dozen people gathered along one of the main sidewalks curving out to Md. 28. The sidewalks were lined of photos of people of many ages, all of whom had died by drug overdose.

Winter said it will take hard work from many partners to bring the number of deaths down. She urged people to look at drug addiction as a disease, not a moral failing.

“I think people are afraid to talk about it,” Winter said. “Because … they don’t want to be put in a negative category, whether they’re a parent, a friend … anybody associated with addiction. Because it gets confused for being an issue of willpower versus it being a disease, and the more somebody uses, the more their body wants.”

But she’s optimistic.

“There can be some positive efforts as a result of this, and that we can work with state and local legislators and health officials and whoever else needs to be involved, to try and help combat this disease,” Winter said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com