Editorial: Courageous family working to help others after tragic overdose death

  • Childhood photos of Eliza Harper, 26, of Deerfield, who died from a heroin overdose on Nov. 30, are displayed Dec. 9, 2018 at the start of a memorial service for Harper at Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/SARAH CROSBY

  • Family members of Eliza Harper, 26, of Deerfield, who died from a heroin overdose on Nov. 30, including sister Ava Harper, left, sister Kate Harper and mother Cara Moser, grandparents Barry Moser and Kay Stevenson, father Dan Harper and his partner Susan Hadlen, hold each other and grieve Dec. 9, 2018 during a memorial service for Eliza at Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cara Moser, mother of Eliza Harper, 26, of Deerfield, who died from a heroin overdose on Nov. 30, receives a hug from her partner Jeff Shotland Dec. 9, 2018 during a memorial service for Harper at Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton. Harper's grandmother Kay Stevenson is shown in the foreground. FOR THE GAZETTE/SARAH CROSBY

  • Dan Harper, father of Eliza Harper, 26, of Deerfield, who died from a heroin overdose on Nov. 30, is comforted by Eliza's grandmother Kay Stevenson, left, and his partner Susan Handlen Dec. 9, 2018 during a memorial service for his daughter at Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/SARAH CROSBY

Published: 12/19/2018 8:37:30 AM

We still have so much to hear, understand and accept about the addiction crisis that has enveloped our country. Awareness is more widespread than it was several years ago when news organizations began devoting more resources to reporting on the opioid epidemic. Hampshire HOPE in Hampshire County and the Opioid Task Force in Franklin County and the North Quabbin area took shape four and five years ago, respectively. But there is much more to do.

Both organizations, composed of government leaders, educators, criminal justice and medical professionals and others, have made a major part of their work teaching the public about the nature and dangers of heroin and opioids.

Drug overdoses led to the deaths of more than 72,000 people in the United States in 2017, according to federal figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a two-fold increase over the past decade. The majority of those deaths had to do with opioids, but deaths from other drugs, including cocaine, are also on the rise.

Education has begun to spread from news articles to schools to medical offices to courthouse counseling rooms to living rooms. Perhaps the most powerful and compelling voices in this chorus are the friends and families of those struck down by addiction at an early age — often after long struggles with the stranglehold addiction can have on a person’s very mind. Addiction is a disease of brain chemistry, not an affliction of weak will.

That’s why we were so moved when the parents of 26-year-old Eliza Harper of Deerfield reached out to tell the story of a daughter they knew to have been open, supportive, authentic, funny and smart, and a nurturer. She had been fighting heroin addiction for the past five years until an accidental overdose last month on her birthday. 

Before the addiction took hold, Eliza was what every parent would want in a daughter: She was a good sister to her four siblings, played soccer, competed in track, graduated from Frontier Regional School in 2011 and attended Greenfield Community College, where she got As.

Her mother, Cara Moser, her father, Daniel Harper, and two of her sisters, Kate and Izzy, now want to help others who struggle with addiction. They reached out to tell her story and held a large public memorial to which they invited Dr. Ruth Potee, a member of the Task Force and a leading voice in its drive to educate the public about the disease.

Eliza’s family has become motivated to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction. “She taught me so much in all of her unusual ways,” Moser said in an interview. “We need to try and raise awareness about this.”

Eliza had depression and anxiety, for which she began to self-medicate with marijuana, and that led to other drugs, her family said. “There is still a lot of stigma and shame. These people are continuously struggling; they need continuity of care and support, not ignorance,” said her mother.

“It would have been different if she had cancer and she got treatment, then it came back,” her father said. “Addiction is similar in that sense, but society deals with it so differently.”

At Eliza’s memorial, Potee compared the opioid crisis to the 1980s epidemic of AIDS — when at first families were ashamed to even speak the word. Potee said that there needs to be a shift in perspective on addiction similar to the shift in perspective that occurred around AIDS.

Opioid addiction is “a serial killer on our streets,” said Potee. The grip heroin and prescription painkillers have on the brain’s chemistry is tenacious and tight, so that “relapse defines the disease,” she said. Eliza was nine months in recovery before she experienced the relapse that ended her life. “Eliza died holding a long and complex arc that was bending towards hope,” said the Rev. Matilda Cantwell, who presided over the memorial. “We must carry that forward.”

For family and friends grieving a loved one lost to addiction, speaking out publicly is courageous and heartbreaking — and yet so valuable to the community. Their message is indisputable, born from pain they don’t wish anyone else to experience.




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