BETHEL — When Donald Olson’s nephew died of an overdose in 2015, his family was left devastated and wondering what they could have done to help him.
“Our family was lost,” Olson said. “We’re still hurt. We’re still confused.”
On Friday, those who have lost loved ones to overdoses or are struggling with addiction themselves will gather at a vigil to remember and support each other.
Olson organized the event with the Heroin and Opiate Awareness Project, a Bethel-based group better known as the HERO Project, that he founded in the months after his nephew’s death.
The second annual vigil will be held at the United Methodist Church at 6:30 p.m. Friday, which is International Overdose Awareness Day. The global event aims to reduce the stigma of addiction and drug-related death.
“International Overdose Awareness Day is a way for families who have lost someone to come together and share a bond,” Olson said. “It’s difficult, but it’s a unique bond where no one else on the planet knows how you feel unless you’ve been through it.”
Last year’s event was powerful, with parents sharing their stories, said Jeff McKenna, president of the HERO Project.
“This person who passed away was someone’s sister, brother, daughter,” he said. “It shouldn’t be stigmatized because someone’s child died of an overdose. It’s still a huge loss to a parent.”
Still, Olson said the vigil will combine “heartache with hope” because attendees are asked to bring an item to donate to the Bethel Community Food Pantry.
“We can take these experiences and pay it forward with just a can of beans or a roll of paper towels,” he said.
More than 1,000 people died last year in Connecticut due to accidental drug overdoses, including nearly 40 in the Danbury area, according to state statistics.
“I don’t know anyone who has not been affected by the opioid crisis or know someone who has died of an overdose,” said Raghib Allie-Brennan, vice president of the HERO Project.
Yet, some still view addiction and overdose as “dirty” or a choice, he said. But the HERO Project provides a “safe haven” for people who might feel isolated by addiction, he said.
“If we save one life in this journey with the HERO project, that’s what this is for,” Allie-Brennan said.
The Danbury Library is also hosting a program as part of International Overdose Awareness Day at 5 p.m. Friday to teach people how to administer Narcan, which is used to reverse overdoses. Attendees who have lost loved ones to addiction should bring shoes to donate to a memorial at Kennedy Park.
The Bethel vigil, meanwhile, will include music, glowing paper lanterns with the names of late loved ones and speakers, including the Rev. John Parille, pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church.
The HERO Project will also provide free drug kits and disposable bags for medication, as well as resources to get help for addiction and information on K2, or synthetic marijuana, which led to more than 100 overdoses in New Haven earlier this month.
Olson said he intends to spark the difficult conversation between parents and kids about drugs and addiction.
“As parents, we don’t know how to do that,” he said.
Organizers said the HERO Project’s events in the community, including ones at BMX racing tracks and local parades, and a booklet sent out to parents through the school district, have helped start these discussions.
The vigil will be another opportunity, Olson said.
“I’d like to see as many families as possible coming out, holding hands, having that preteen with them in their presence, looking at the families that are brave enough to come out and share their story,” he said.