‘I love you, daddy, my heart cracked’: how the opioid crisis affects children left behind
More than a thousand Canadians were killed by opioids in the first three months of 2018, leaving thousands more family members to grieve the loss of their loved ones.
But no one in Canada collects statistics on the number of children impacted by the crisis.
WATCH: Mothers of fentanyl overdose victims share their grief
Lily, Noah and Violet Harder are three young kids in such a situation.
They live in Courtenay, B.C. — the province hit hardest by overdose deaths. The most recent data on opioid use in the province is from September: in that month alone, 128 people died of suspected opioid use.
According to Island Health, eighty per cent of the people who die in B.C. due to opioid use are men.
But we don’t know how many of those men are fathers, like 30-year-old Lamille Harder.
“He was a very hard worker. He was a loving father. He did everything for our children,” said Harder’s wife, Dallas Forbes.
Forbes and Harder met working for a construction company in northern Alberta in 2013. Harder was already a dad — he had two sons from a previous relationship. But soon, Forbes and Harder started their own family. Lily, their daughter, arrived a year after they met, and Noah a year after that.
The family lived in Alberta for three years before deciding to try something new: life on Vancouver Island. The couple planned to launch a roofing business together. Forbes would stay home with the children and take care of the bookkeeping.
But she always knew her husband had struggled with drug addiction. She says it followed him off and on for his whole life. On the island, Harder’s demons got the best of him for a time. Things got so bad, the couple split up at one point. But Forbes said her husband made an effort to get better and sought help for his addiction.
“He was clean for about a year, almost a year, from opioids. And I decided that I would give him another chance to come back with us,” said Forbes.
By November 2016, he moved back in.
“It was so nice to have our family back together, doing things together and just loving the island,” said Forbes.
“The kids loved having him back, too. It was just so great.”
In those joyful four months, Forbes found out she was expecting a third child. The couple found a bigger home for their growing family. But in February 2017, after just one night in the new house, their lives changed forever.
Harder had to leave for a construction job in Victoria. The last time Forbes ever heard from her husband was via a text message. He told her he was having dinner in Nanaimo, about an hour away from home, and wouldn’t get back until late.
“Then I woke up in the morning, and there was nobody next to me,” said Forbes.
She started making calls. No one knew where her husband was. His boss said he still had the company vehicle. She filed a missing person report and searched for two long days.
Then the police called her.
“They didn’t say anything about finding anything…but they asked me if he had any tattoos. And I knew that he was dead when he asked me that question,” Forbes said.
He had been found in his work vehicle along the side of a road.
“As soon as I got there, it was like a scene from a movie. I just looked at the police and I said: ‘Please don’t tell me he’s dead.’ And the officers looked at me and said: ‘I’m sorry, he’s gone,’” she recalled.
The pregnant Forbes fell to her knees.
“Even though he’d been clean for the time he’d been back with us, I knew that it was a drug overdose,” said Forbes.
The toxicology report confirmed her suspicions: her husband died of a fentanyl overdose.
“I was a complete mess and I had to come back and face our children,” she remembered. “They were so small; you didn’t know what to say.”
Soon, the eldest Lily started to ask questions. It was extremely tough for Forbes to figure out how to explain a drug death to toddlers. At first, she just avoided the topic. But she knew she wanted to be clear on one thing.
“I wanted to be completely honest with my children. I want them to know that the way their daddy died was not shameful. And it’s been happening a lot to different people,” said Forbes.
Harder was one of 123 British Columbians to die of an illicit drug overdose in February 2017 alone, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.
Forbes told her children their father took some “bad drugs” that made him fall asleep, and he never woke up.
“Lamille was Christian so I just told them that Daddy went up to heaven with Jesus,” she said.
Forbes says she has noticed behavioural changes in Lily and Noah since they lost their father.
“They were acting out and were pretty sensitive,” she said.
Lily has told her mother that she just wants her daddy back.
“It was really sad,” Forbes said.
“I’m not ready to be with anyone else so it hurts me to know she’s needing that and I can’t help her,” she said.
Forbes says a mentorship program or group space for her kids to talk would be helpful, but she isn’t aware of any services available in her small community, and especially not for children as young as hers.
There was a bright spot in the past year, though. It came in the form of Violet Lamille Harder.
“Oh, from the moment I saw her it was like a spitting image of him,” Forbes said of her youngest daughter.
“It’s almost like a piece of his soul is in her. She’s just an amazing little girl. I’m so blessed to have her and my other children,” said Forbes.
“It’s strange what God gives us, you know, just this little piece of heaven.”
Her biggest fear for her children is they end up making the same mistake as their father.
“I do believe it’s a disease and it’s hereditary,” she said of drug addiction.
She says she will do her best to make sure that doesn’t happen, and even though it’s been less than a year she since lost her husband, through her own grief Forbes is committed to continuing to talk about the issue for her own families’ sake and others.
“I want to stop people from dying. I want these children to stop losing their parents. I want there to be some sort of solution, some sort of answers because nobody is getting any answers,” said Forbes.
Lily talks about her daddy all the time. Forbes encourages her to talk to him as well.
“I’ve told her, any time you want to talk to Daddy, you just talk out loud and he’ll hear you. He’s always with us,” she said.
Global News asked the four-year-old what she tells her father when she talks to him.
“I love you Daddy. My heart cracked,” the little girl said.
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.