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Manchester community gathers to remember more than 10,000 overdose deaths and battle stigma

Holding signs of their children who were killed by fentanyl, Ghristine Gagnon and Liz Fitzgerald (l-r) attended an event at New Britain’s Walnut Hill Park commemorating International Overdose Awareness Day.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Holding signs of their children who were killed by fentanyl, Ghristine Gagnon and Liz Fitzgerald (l-r) attended an event at New Britain’s Walnut Hill Park commemorating International Overdose Awareness Day.

As many as 10,600 people died of an unintentional drug overdose in Connecticut in the last decade. That’s 10,600 families in grief, learning to heal one day at a time.

Dad, sister, friend — they all gathered at Northwest Park in Manchester under the evening sky, united by loss. And they sat together to watch a documentary called “Speaking Grief.”

Henry Dekker of South Windsor was among them. His son, also Henry, died of a drug overdose four years ago.

Ceremonies were held around Connecticut to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, 2023. In New Britain’s Walnut Hill Park, Tom Fulton, with the Wheeler Clinic, affixed one of 1,464 white flags honoring the 1,464 people who fatally overdosed in Connecticut last year.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Ceremonies were held around Connecticut to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, 2023. In New Britain’s Walnut Hill Park, Tom Fulton, with the Wheeler Clinic, affixed one of 1,464 white flags honoring the 1,464 people who fatally overdosed in Connecticut last year.

“Sometimes you, with your grief, you don't want to be around other people that are grieving the way you are,” Dekker said. “But then other times you need to be with this club that dues are extremely high to belong to.”

He said he chose to attend this particular gathering held by the Change Collaborative of Manchester because his son used to live in Manchester.

“Part of the other reason I’m here, too, is to gather information on how to help prevent somebody else from overdosing or to give advice to somebody’s parents,” he said. “Because we can’t do anything about our children now, but maybe we can do something to help somebody else from going through what we go through.”

The Collaborative gave away books on grief and healing, memory stores, and coloring art to take home.

“Tonight we’re here to remember the loved ones that we’ve lost to overdose,” said Samantha Bell, chair of Change Collaborative.” And we’re trying to remove the stigma that sometimes comes along with losing a loved one to overdose. You know, it is a mental illness, it is not somebody’s choice. And we’re just here to support the families and the loved ones left behind.”

According to a 2020 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Connecticut's per capita rate of overdose deaths was higher than the national average.

Families who have lost a loved one to drug overdose gathered Aug. 31 on International Overdose Awareness Day at Northwest Park, Manchester, to watch "Speaking Grief," a short documentary on loss, grief, and healing.
Sujata Srinivasan
/
Connecticut Public
Families who have lost a loved one to drug overdose gathered Aug. 31 on International Overdose Awareness Day at Northwest Park, Manchester, to watch "Speaking Grief," a short documentary on loss, grief, and healing.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.