Those who have lost loved ones to substance abuse find solace through support

During the four years that Nancy Murphy's daughter Tara Levis struggled with substance use, she would often tell her mom that she had no hope left.

Murphy told her daughter that she would hold on to her hope for her until Levis was ready to take it back for herself.

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"So we shared it back and forth for those four years, and now I've given it back to her," Murphy said. Levis has been living substance-free for the last one year and nine months.

Murphy's experience supporting her daughter through her struggles with substance use inspired her to start a support group for families who are still in the throes of helping a loved one through addiction.

"I felt that if I could get through this, then I want to help other families, because I had to navigate the silos of the health care system,” Murphy said.

She calls the group Holding Hope, a tribute to her promise to Levis.

Murphy facilitates the support group through Moms Stop the Harm, a network of families across Canada who have lost loved ones or supported family through substance use. The advocacy group pushes for more harm-reduction strategies, safe supply and decriminalization.

Murphy welcomes anyone whose loves ones are struggling with addiction to the group to find support for themselves because they are also affected by their loved one’s use.

“It’s whatever you deem family to be. It could be a birth family, a best friend, a street family,” she said.

People in the group are invited talk through how they are affected by their loved one’s struggles, and Murphy brings in speakers from advocacy groups.

“It gives people an opportunity to learn at the same time as supporting one another,” Murphy said.

The weekly meetings started as a pilot project in Victoria, Esquimalt and the West Shore. As the program expands to new locations, Murphy is looking for more facilitators. She’d like to hold sessions every other week.

“There is interest in the rest of B.C. and in Canada for us to expand it, so anywhere you have Moms Stop the Harm, we can train facilitators and then they can hold it in their community,” she said. “Because every community is saying they need support for the ones that are supporting their loved one.”

Murphy gathered with other members of Moms Stop the Harm to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day Saturday afternoon in Centennial Square, where dozens of people learned how to administer Naloxone when a person is experiencing an overdose during a mass training held by AVI Health and Community.

Jennifer Howard, also with Moms Stop the Harm, runs a program similar to Murphy’s. Healing Hearts is a support group for families who have lost loved ones to addiction. Howard started the group after losing her only son, 24-year-old Robby, in May 2016.

She threw herself into advocacy after connecting with Moms Stop the Harm and has found some comfort in fighting for change in the response to the opioid crisis.

About 50 families are registered in Howard’s twice-monthly support meetings.

“Sadly every month I’m getting phone calls of more families who are wanting to find a place of comfort and understanding as they work through their loss,” Howard said.

Terry McLean has been attending Howard’s meetings since losing her daughter Brett, 23, last October. She remembers a December meeting in which they discussed how to handle the holidays without a loved one as particularly helpful.

“We went through feelings that you’re going to go through, and ways to manage the feelings. Just so these things don’t just come up to you on Christmas Eve and knock you over more than they’re going to anyway,” McLean said.

She was connected to Moms Stop the Harm through a friend shortly after Brett’s death and has found comfort in the advocacy group.

“These big arms come around you like mom arms and embrace you,” she said.

Moms Stop the Harm is holding a candlelight vigil at St. John the Divine Anglican Church at 7 p.m. to remember those lost, still struggling and in recovery.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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