Giving meaning to her death

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My husband and I loved our niece like a daughter. A very confused, troubled daughter. Ericka had seen things as a child that I know affected her behavior as an adult. She always put on a happy face, though. Everyone who met her commented on how sweet, polite, and effervescent she was. But, we knew that the circumstances of her childhood were weighing on her. Her mother had just as many problems. There was something in her past that had its claws in her as well. She was a severe alcoholic and we knew her time was limited as a result. In the summer of 2013, alcohol finally claimed her life. At that point, I had known Ericka for 14 years and that was when the real trouble started. We knew she was dating a heroin addict and we knew she was using. At 24 years old, she had already been married and divorced twice. She was drinking heavily, wrecking cars, and she had been in prison. Whatever Ericka was desperately seeking, she couldn’t find it. One night I received a call from my mother-in-law begging us to help her get Ericka, her 1st grandchild, out of her house. When I arrived at her house, Ericka was obviously drunk, but when the police arrived and searched her bag, there was no evidence that she was using heroin. She had no obvious signs of using, but I knew she was and I told her as much. She, of course, denied it with a sweet smile on her face. That was the last time I saw her. About 4 months later, almost exactly one year after her mother died, Ericka went to Baltimore with her old friends and bought heroin. She was living with my mother-in-law at the time because she was trying to get her life back on track. She was clean and dry (not necessarily sober as I now know the true definition of sobriety) and had started a new job. She had gone shopping earlier in the evening and bought a new blouse for work. After she bought the heroin, she came back to the house, ran the shower, and shot up in the bathroom. She overdosed and collapsed against the bathroom door. My mother-in-law awoke an hour later to hear the shower still running and she immediately knew something was terribly wrong. She couldn’t open the bathroom door and once the police arrived, they had to climb through the bathroom window to get the door opened. At the point, my mother-in-law was on the phone with my husband, hysterically crying. The rest is procedural. Her boyfriend and fellow users came to her funeral and looked like zombies. I felt for them in some way, but I asked them to leave. I truly believe that all Ericka wanted was love. She also wanted to escape the horrors of her childhood. We loved her like our own child, but that wasn’t enough to save her. So now I constantly ask myself what else I could have done to save her. What can I do to save the ones who heroin and opioids have not yet claimed? How can I bear witness to Ericka’s life and death so that it will have some meaning?

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