Content warning: this piece contains drug use, death, profanity, mental illness, and mention of suicide.
Disclaimer: names have been changed to respect privacy.
The seven minutes it will take you to read the first half of this story is how long my brother was lying dead on his bedroom floor.
In seven minutes, you might be able to scroll through your entire Instagram feed, do the dishes, or send an email. But that day, paramedics spent seven minutes performing CPR and pumping Narcan into the veins of my 20-year-old brother who had overdosed on fentanyl.
Usually, seven minutes seems like an insignificant amount of time, but in 2013, seven minutes changed my life.
The Five Stages of Grief
Psychologists talk about five stages people go through when grieving the death of a loved one:
- Denial & Isolation
While these are sometimes called stages, the grief process is not as simple as going through the five stages and moving on. It’s different for everyone and is often long, messy, and all-consuming. People move to different stages, repeat stages, and can feel like they’re on a confusing rollercoaster ride.
I feel like I’m on that same rollercoaster ride too, but I’m grieving someone who is still alive.
After years of denying therapy and relying on Google for explanations about why I wasn’t grieving like the psychologists say you should, I found something that made sense — ambiguous loss.
In the 1970s, Dr. Pauline Boss, a professor and therapist, developed the term ambiguous loss. She said this type of loss defies resolution, creates long-term confusion, and freezes the process of grieving. It often affects people who are going through a divorce, have a loved one with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, or a traumatic brain injury — and, like my case, people who have a family member with an addiction.
With death, there is an official certification of loss, proof of the transformation from life to death. When someone dies, we have symbols and rituals of closure: funerals, cremation and ash spreading ceremonies, and writing obituaries for those we have lost. But with ambiguous loss, none of these markers exist. The persisting ambiguity blocks cognition and coping.
I have been experiencing ambiguous loss since the day my brother Benjamin overdosed in his bedroom in our mom’s basement. He died and came back to life. We were best friends and now we’re strangers. I don’t know how to grieve a living person.
For five years, I have been obsessed with trying to find the answer to the question of why my brother is an addict. I have spent countless hours replaying moments of our childhood in my mind, trying to pinpoint where it all started, but I can’t figure it out. I understand kids like to try marijuana, but what drove Benjamin to use oxycontin, valium, methadone, and heroin? Why is he an addict? Why am I not?
I know I should feel grateful I’m not a drug addict, and I do, but some days I feel like it would almost be easier if I was. Maybe then I would have all the answers to the questions I can’t seem to answer. Why can’t he stop using drugs? Why did he even try drugs in the first place? Why are drugs more important than me?
But for now, while I still try to figure it all out, I’ve found my own stages of grief.
Stage 1: Heartbreak
I was there the day Benjamin died. His heart stopped and he flatlined for seven minutes.
My dad was dropping me off at my mom’s house, and we ended up following an ambulance down her street, unaware we were all going to the same place. I watched my dad run into the house with a terrified look on his face as I fought to break through the arms of the paramedics who were holding me back from the scene. I heard my brother’s girlfriend hysterically yelling, “He’s dead, he’s dead. He’s fucking dead.” I can still hear her screams in my head when I think about those seven minutes, which is almost every day.
She was right. Benjamin did die. He wrapped a band around his arm, filled a syringe from a fentanyl patch, and injected it into the biggest vein. He was dead within minutes.
Drugs.com says it only takes two to three milligrams of fentanyl to kill someone. Something smaller than a grain of rice can kill someone almost instantly. In 2019, the Government of Canada released an opioid crisis fact sheet stating that Fentanyl, which is traditionally used to treat pain in cancer patients and during labour and delivery, is now one of the leading causes of overdoses in Canada. I didn’t know what it was until it nearly killed Benjamin. Now, it’s something I think about regularly.
Thanks to the paramedics and Narcan, Benjamin walked himself out of the house and towards the ambulance with the paramedics following behind him. His face was pale and his grey shirt was covered in his vomit. He looked at me and asked, “What happened?” He sat himself in the ambulance and I watched them drive away while I sat on the boulevard wondering how my brother, who had just died minutes earlier, was able to walk out of the house as if nothing happened.
This was the first time he broke my heart.
I started to picture him sitting in the hospital alone, scared, and confused. I felt my stomach drop thinking he didn’t have anyone there to comfort him. But I was so angry. I was so angry that it got this out of control. I didn’t know if I was able to go to the hospital to be there for him because I was so fucking angry.
My mom was driving in from out of town to the hospital and my dad was outside talking to the police about the possibility of a charge for drug possession. I had no choice but to be there for him. No one else could be there for him like I could. No one knew him the way I did.
We were siblings; we were best friends who knew everything about each other. We only have a three-year age gap between us. We shared secrets and had inside jokes. When we heard our parents arguing, we would lie on his bed and watch The O.C. on full volume. We talked about who he’d date: Summer or Marissa. He chose Marissa, which is kind of ironic thinking about it now. He laughed at me when I wished Sandy Cohen would adopt me and schmear me a bagel. When I was seven years old and coming out of eye surgery, Benjamin came to my bedside, grabbed my hand, and sang “You Are My Sunshine.”
After his overdose, Benjamin and I hung out in his hospital room for hours. We listened to the dubstep group Knife Party on repeat which I thought was a weird thing to do considering the situation, but I wanted to do whatever made him happy. He told me the next day, he wanted to listen to it because he was still coming down from his high and wanted to feel like he was partying, not sitting in a hospital with ECG leads taped to his chest.
A little while later our parents walked in with the doctor. We turned off my iPod touch and waited for the uncomfortable conversation with the doctor: rehab, needing to get tested for hepatitis C because of his needle usage, and what was going to happen moving forward. Because he was an adult and he didn’t think he was an addict, Benjamin turned down the idea of rehab, no matter how much my parents begged him to go. So instead, there was an ultimatum: if he ever touched drugs again, he was getting sent to rehab against his will.
Stage 2: Confusion
Benjamin and I had a privileged childhood. Our mom was a nurse; our dad was a police officer. We lived in big houses with custom-designed kitchens with granite countertops and went on family vacations around North America every summer. We both played volleyball for Team Manitoba and were honour roll students. He was going to the University of Manitoba on a full sports and academic scholarship and had plans to become a doctor. We had many of the same childhood experiences, but my mom said our personalities were different. While I was outgoing and confident, Benjamin was afraid of not fitting in.
My mom still loses sleep trying to figure out where things went wrong. She, too, deals with ambiguous loss.
“I’m always looking for things that I have done that may have caused him trauma,” she said. “Did I traumatize him by putting his toys in the snow when he was acting up as a kid? There are so many things I regret.”
Addiction already ran in my family. Growing up we had family members die from alcoholism. My dad said he could see signs of addiction in Benjamin from when he was 10 years old. He would become obsessed with things, whether it was video games, working out, or only eating certain foods.
He told Benjamin at a young age, “addiction runs in our family and you have an addictive personality; if you try drugs once, you will become addicted.”
Things started changing when Benjamin was in high school. He was still popular, getting good grades, and the captain of the volleyball and basketball teams, but something changed inside him. His obsessive behaviour made his curiosity in drugs flourish. My dad found a spreadsheet Benjamin made with a list of all the drugs he was going to try categorized by price, dosage amount, and side effects. He listed supplements he could take to reverse the damage he would be causing to his body, and he watched the show Intervention religiously.
Benjamin had just started his senior year when our parents brought us into the living room for the “we’re getting a divorce and it’s not your fault” talk. We both knew it was coming, so at the time we laughed and didn’t question anything. But, a few months later, Benjamin told me our parents’ divorce was tough on him. I never understood why and wasn’t able to relate. The one thing that sticks out to me is Benjamin telling me I was lucky that I didn’t have to help my dad pack his things and leave the house for good.
Was his drug use a coping mechanism for trauma I didn’t see?
Stage 3: Guilt
For years, I knew Benjamin was getting high almost daily, but I just thought of him as being the cool older brother who liked to party. It’s not like he looked like the people we watched on Intervention, he looked like Benjamin. Six foot five, lanky, brown-haired Benjamin. I didn’t want to be the annoying little sister who tattled on him, and I thought what he was doing was normal for people his age.
I didn’t think twice when he asked me to hide ecstasy pills in my stuffed animals so my parents wouldn’t find them. I thought it was funny when he told me our dog almost ate acid and he had to dig it out of his mouth. I thought driving him to pick up drugs from drug dealers was a bonding experience. I thought it was normal that he did cocaine in the washroom at family dinners to help him stay awake and hold a conversation. I thought he loved me and trusted me because he let me into his secret life.
I didn’t think anything was wrong.
But something was wrong. Things got out of control and drugs now controlled Benjamin’s life. They controlled him so much that he overdosed on a Friday, and by Saturday he was using again. In the chaos of bringing him back to life, the paramedics hadn’t found his stash of drugs and needles in his desk drawer.
The day after the overdose, I went to my mom’s house to see Benjamin and see how he was doing. In his typical sarcastic fashion, he started singing “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. He seemed fine. I left for 20 minutes to get us pizza and when I came back something was off. Benjamin was sitting on the couch struggling to button up a flannel shirt and slurring his words. He asked me to button the shirt for him. He said the weed he just smoked must be interacting with Narcan the paramedics gave him yesterday, causing him to act weird. Being a naïve non-drug-using teenager, I believed him. I helped him button his shirt and then tucked him into his bed, as per his request.
After he overdosed, I asked him what it felt like to die. He said he was overcome by a sense of euphoria. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. In reality, his girlfriend found him face down in his bed. When she flipped him over he was cold and blue. He hadn’t fallen asleep. He died.
After I tucked Benjamin into bed, I checked on him every five minutes to make sure he was still breathing. I would stand outside his bedroom door and take a deep breath before going in, preparing myself to find my brother dead — again.
I didn’t tell my parents. I couldn’t tell them he was high again because I didn’t want him to go to rehab. But what if I had told, and he had gone to rehab? Would everything be different? Would we have a relationship today?
Stage 4: Anger
A few months after his overdose, my mom brought up in a conversation that Benjamin was acting weird the day after he got home from the hospital because he used fentanyl again. She thought Benjamin had already told me because he and I told each other everything — or so I thought. I was in disbelief. How could he do that to himself? How could he do that to me? Didn’t he know I needed him?
I confronted him about using fentanyl again. I was hysterically crying telling him I didn’t want him to die. He laughed, saying I had nothing to worry about. I can’t remember when I confronted him. That memory is blurry, but I do remember crying on the floor and begging him to stop using drugs. He has never admitted he’s an addict. He still doesn’t believe he was dead for seven minutes.
Benjamin continued doing drugs daily. More cocaine at family dinners, methadone for long car rides, oxycontin when he was relaxing at home. He got caught snorting cocaine by the TA during a university class and got away with it because he told the Dean he and his friend were doing an experiment to see if snorting Advil worked better than swallowing it. He would run to the dressing room during his university volleyball games to do cocaine and would return to the court and continue playing. I had hit my breaking point. He was 23 now. Wasn’t he able to see what he was doing to me? To our family? To his life? I gave him an ultimatum: either you stop doing drugs or I won’t be part of your life. He laughed and said, “I’m not going to stop doing coke for you.”
This was the second time Benjamin broke my heart.
After the confrontation, we didn’t see each other for over a year. If he was invited to family dinners I wouldn’t go. When my family talked about him, I would change the subject. I just pretended he was dead.
And then I saw him.
Across a dark, crowded bar packed wall to wall with people dancing to a live band, I recognized his tall skinny frame messy brown hair, and his favourite jean jacket. Three drunkenly dancing strangers were the only things separating us. We locked eyes — and in that second, I could feel my heart beating faster. He started walking toward me, breaking through the dancing strangers. My breath became shallow and I could feel my face getting warm.
“You know you’re the reason our family is so fucked, right?” he said to me. “You are the problem here, not me. You’re a cunt. If you ever see me again, I’m dead to you.”
“I wish you were dead,” I said. “I spend every day wishing you died that day.”
And then I slapped him across the face.
I had never been so angry. My face was so warm I could feel it pulsing. Everything around me was blurry. I ran outside and fell to my knees gasping for air.
“Are you on drugs?” said a woman passing by.
Stage 5: Anger, again
Benjamin’s drug use changed my family. Even though I wasn’t addicted to drugs, my relationship with my parents has never been the same.
On New Year’s Eve in 2016, I was in my room in the basement watching The Office when my mom came downstairs to show me the outfit she was wearing to the party she was going to. She was in a sparkly gold top, black jeans, gold hoop earrings, and a beautiful gold necklace. She was ready for a fun evening out with friends, while I was staying in by myself. My mom asked me why I wasn’t going out, and the truth was I didn’t feel like partying when all I was thinking about is how Benjamin was going to be ringing in the new year. This light-hearted conversation turned into one of the biggest fights I’ve ever had with my mom.
I told my mom Benjamin was still using drugs and she said I was acting “as dramatic as a Kardashian.” She called me a liar, and said I was making up a story to make Benjamin look bad and to make myself “look like the golden child.” She said I didn’t know what I was talking about when I told her that my friend, who was dating Benjamin’s best friend, sent me Snapchat videos of him snorting lines of cocaine in her apartment. Benjamin had mastered manipulation. She believed his words over mine. And sometimes she still does.
In hindsight, I know she is just struggling with denial — denial about the person her son has become. She is mourning the life he could have had. What he should have had.
“For me, it’s a life sentence,” she told me, “It’s a death sentence and a life sentence. I will never ever get out from under it.”
I resent my mom for the relationship she continues to have with my brother. I feel like she is choosing Benjamin over me, over and over again.
Family Drug Help states, “We often refer to siblings as the ‘forgotten victims’ as they feel the impact of their brother or sister’s drug use just as much as other family members, but often don’t have an outlet to express their hurt. Similarly, siblings of drug users are usually overshadowed by the using sibling. The focus rests solely on the problematic child and the remaining kids are often left wondering ‘what about me?'”
I often feel this way. Even though Benjamin and I haven’t seen each other in years and he isn’t involved with most of our family anymore, I still wonder if my parents think about me as often as they think about him. I wonder if my dad would still be living in Winnipeg if he had two children keeping him here, not just me.
I still hear Benjamin slurring his words, telling me I’m the reason our family is so fucked up — and part of me wonders if it’s true. For five years he has hated me because I told my parents he was using again. They wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for me. I wonder if my parents resent me for bursting the bubble of our perfect-looking family.
Stage 6: Sadness, again
Three years ago, I got a phone call from my friend while I was at work.
“Ryan died. He was found dead in his room.”
Ryan was Benjamin’s best friend. He was like a second brother to me while we were growing up. He was always at our house. Just like Benjamin, Ryan was addicted to drugs. He overdosed on carfentanil — a drug 100 times stronger than fentanyl that is used to tranquilize elephants — alone in his bedroom. He wasn’t found until a week later when the police did a wellness check on him. It turns out Ryan was selling his clothes and shoes to afford to buy the drugs that killed him.
I texted Benjamin to offer some support. Even though I hated him and couldn’t have a relationship with him, I still needed to check if he was okay.
He responded, “Fuck off. Leave me alone.”
Last year, my dad sent me a photo message of an obituary. Another one of Benjamin’s friends. Another overdose. This time I didn’t reach out to Benjamin, instead, I wondered when he was going to overdose again and when it would be his photo in an obituary.
My dad rarely show his emotions. He is strong and stern. I think 30 years of being a police officer trained him to suppress his emotions. Or at least to not show his emotions. I can count the number of times I’ve seen him tear up on one hand. One instance, in particular, stands out in my memory.
“I wake up every single day expecting a phone call that your brother is dead,” he told me, “Whether he killed himself or got killed, I wait for the call every day.”
Like my dad, I am expecting a phone call about my brother. And for a while, I wished it would come.
But I tried to see it from Benjamin’s side. Two of his friends overdosed and he dealt with it by getting high. That isn’t normal behaviour. That isn’t something a mentally stable person does. I felt sick to my stomach picturing him alone in his room grieving his friends. My heart broke when I heard he wasn’t invited to Ryan’s funeral because his family found out Benjamin knew who sold him the drugs that killed him.
Benjamin had always been the drug use ringleader in his friend group. He was the one who started using first and introduced hard drugs to everyone else. He would choose which drugs to try and would be the one to buy them. Was this his way of trying to fit in and be in control of something in his life? One of his friends was supposed to do fentanyl with him the day he overdosed but backed out because he was afraid he would die.
Through this loss and trauma, I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression. I have a support system, and I’m still barely keeping my head above water; how does Benjamin feel without one?
Last year, I tried reaching out to Benjamin through his girlfriend at the time. I didn’t want to rebuild a relationship, I just wanted to know if he was okay. His girlfriend said she’d ask him and let me know, but he took her phone pretending to be her and let me know that wasn’t going to happen.
This was the last time Benjamin broke my heart. For now, at least.
He has a relationship with my mom and grandma, but he won’t have anything to do with me. I am still the cunt who slapped his face three years ago.
Stage 7: Repeat
My cycle of grief keeps turning. I haven’t found that acceptance stage psychologists tell you to hold out for. There are panic attacks, fights, sleepless nights, bars I can’t go to in fear of seeing him, and phone numbers of dead friends I can’t erase from my contact list. And then there are the tears. So many fucking tears.
Dr. Boss said one of the best ways to cope with your ambiguous loss is to be open to a new type of relationship with the person you’re grieving. To accept the change in the person and understand your new relationship will never be the same as the old one.
My parents think there will be a day when Benjamin and I will have a relationship again. But I can’t imagine having a relationship with someone who has hurt me so deeply. A person who chose to stop knowing me five years ago. A person who doesn’t know my partner, my friends, my hobbies, my interests. A person who won’t be invited to my wedding, and who won’t be an uncle to my kids. A person I lost in seven minutes.