I was 20 when overdose first touched my life. I lost one of my deepest loves, his name was Kotschi.
Grief makes some people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do or say. They start shifting their weight from one foot to the other and you get the distinct impression that they’d wish you’d shut up.
In their minds grief is only a weight, a burden. Something you are supposed to try and slough off, get rid of.
But Kotschi has never been a burden to me and my grief for him is no burden either. That doesn’t mean that it is always easy. That doesn’t mean that he was perfect, or that he was always easy to love. But he is no burden.
What I’m struck by today is the evolution of my grief. When I was younger I needed him to be a martyr. I needed his death to mean something. I erased his imperfections in the hopes that it would be easier for others to mourn his loss as much as I did. Today my grief is more respectful. It allows his life to be as it was, imperfect. It allows me to remember him more fully. My grief, now, is unconditional. Just as my love for him is.
I know now that grief is not just a solemn thing. Grief, in some ways, is the ultimate form of respect. It is valuing a life enough to miss it, to want to remember it honestly. And while it may seem counter intuitive grief can sometimes be a joy. It is a way to carry someone close to us. It is how we get to keep their memory. Grief is presence. Grief changes us, meaning it transforms us. It means that the lives of those who are lost still have an impact on today. It means they are never truly gone.
It was an honor to know Kotschi while he was here. It is an honor to carry him with me now.
Today we gather to remember, to offer our respect to those who are no longer with us. But we are also here to honor the living. We are here to celebrate those who have survived and those who have saved the lives of others.
We gather here today because we know that there has been an increase in overdose around the Civic Center area. We also know that because of the heart, skill, and dedication of folks at The Dope Project, local syringe exchanges, and most importantly drug users themselves, that over 75 overdoses have been reversed in the last month. 75 lives saved.
We gather because we know that we are capable of saving our own lives and that we have been doing it for decades. We know that folks here on the ground are the true leaders of the harm reduction movement. You are the ones distributing Narcan and training folks how to use it. You run syringe exchanges and talk with folks about safer injection practices. You look at each other with dignity and care when others want to make you invisible. You know that every life is worth saving.
So yes, we are here to grieve but we are also here to celebrate the incredible power that people possess. Many of you here have been doing harm reduction work long before it was any sort of fashionable. Long before anyone started talking about a “new” heroin epidemic. Long before politicians or police started taking interest because overdose was hitting the wealthy and the white harder than usual.
Many of you have long been here offering your grief, your respect, your time, your care. Thank you. It’s never said enough. Thank you.
Even when it is hard it is no burden. Instead it is our honor. It is our lives and the lives of those we love.
We gather today because we care enough to remember and we know enough to understand our own power. Unlike other memorials, we do not just read the names of the dead. We also hear the names of living, those saved by Narcan and a community that loves and values them.
So today we’ll share stories, music, and memory because today we are reminded that to grieve is to show our respect. Today we are reminded that our grief is almost always a call to action.
Save A Life. Find where you can get Narcan in your area.
Written for the San Francisco Overdose Awareness Day event, August 30th, 2015.