Memorial tree helps promote overdose awareness

By: Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun
A Gone Too Soon Tree memorial was erected by Brandon and Area Overdose Awareness volunteers Saturday at Shoppers Mall to honour those  who have been lost to drug- or substance-related deaths.
Volunteer  Stacey Preston said 2021 marks the first time the tree has been put up  at the mall. Their hope is the white tree decorated with purple  ornaments will inspire people to stop and think about overdose awareness  while Christmas shopping.
Having the tree topped with a purple  star, the colour of overdose awareness, she said, serves as a reminder  that some families and friends will have empty seats at the holiday  table this year because a loved one has died from substance abuse.
In Manitoba alone, drug-related deaths have risen by 44 per cent in 2021.
“We  all know someone or have been affected by overdose and drug use,” said  volunteer Bailey Worme. “It’s an important thing to do and bring  awareness — it happens every single day. This is something that is still  ongoing, and it’s something that is an epidemic. Hopefully, we can  bring a change one day.”
The overdose awareness tree has been  adorned in purple ornamentals, metal feathers and metal angels all  bearing the names of someone from Manitoba who has died from an  overdose. The names were located through word-of-mouth, social media and  people reaching out to the organization asking to have a loved one’s  name placed on the memorial.
Preston is no stranger to the dangers  of death by substance abuse — she had someone close to her die by blood  poisoning from substance use this year. It was a heartbreaking and  difficult experience, she said, and pushed her to find a way to help the  greater community.
“The worst part is knowing she felt alone and  she had no one,” Preston said. “I didn’t understand her struggle. I was  learning, but I needed a lot more years with her to understand the  depths of everything.”
It remains essential to share these stories  to help put a face to the ongoing crisis, she added. Talking about  these experiences can help shift the societal understanding of substance  abuse because you never know who may be struggling and in need of a  helping hand.
“The more you say, ‘I know somebody who has suffered  from death by blood poisoning due to substances,’ then it becomes, ‘oh,  I do too.’ You realize there are a lot more people who know someone if  you just start a conversation,” Preston said, “Conversation and  education are key for everybody to learn.”
Preston added she wants  people to take the time to understand the issue and those affected so  they can help shift away from the immediately judging someone  experiencing substance abuse.
Instead, her hope is people will unpack ways they can help make a difference.
Brandon  and Area Overdose Awareness is a local organization focused on raising  awareness for overdoses and actively working to remove the stigma around  those who die by overdose or are experiencing substance abuse.
There is a critical need to change the language around substance abuse, Worme said, to help create a cultural shift.
Worme,  28, is recovering from substance abuse, she said, and will still find  herself using improper language such as the word “junkie” to describe  her experience. She is now trying to move away from words like junkie or  addict to describe herself, instead opting for the term “someone who  has a problem with substance use disorder.”
Worme has lost “too  many people to count” to death by overdose. She originally hails from  Calgary, and it reached the point she had to quit all social media  because it was too difficult constantly seeing her friends die.
“I  want to be able to help bring change. I’m hoping that one day we are  able to and I don’t have to attend any more funerals and watch all my  friends go down that path,” Worme said. “I have about eight or nine  people from my life that are going to be going up on that tree.”
Preston said a major part of changing the narrative is encouraging people to use more thoughtful language.
“There’s  a lot of stigma around people who have passed away from blood poisoning  due to substances and there’s a lot of poor language around people who  suffer from substance abuse,” Preston said. “There’s a lot of stigma  around pointing fingers and people only see the worst in society, but  there a lot of other people that struggle with substance abuse that have  very affluent jobs, there just not as noticeable.”
Many people  have preconceived ideas about what substance abuse should look like, she  said, and it does not always appear in the way people imagine — it can  affect any community member, friend or family member.
It remains  critical to bring this stigma to an end and help people realize that  regardless of someone’s condition, they are someone’s family member or  friend and they need to e treated with love, dignity and respect.
“You  don’t talk down to a person who has cancer, and it’s the same thing  with substance use disorder,” Worme said. “It’s a part of trauma  response most of the time, and if people learn to understand trauma  responses, they can understand why a person does what they do.”
If  you would like to have a loved one’s name placed on the Gone Too Soon  Tree at Shoppers Mall, email, or call  or text 204-573-0188 for more information on Brandon Overdose  Awareness.
“No one should ever feel alone,” Preston said.