Marcus Gee speaks with Canadians who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses. For those left behind, tattoos keep them close
Friday, July 5, 2019 – Print Edition, Page A8


In 2008, Helen Jennens's son, Rian, was in a motorcycle crash that crushed his leg from toe to hip. He took painkillers to get through the recovery and more drugs for insomnia and depression. Ms. Jennens would take him food, do his laundry and play cards with him. One day, he didn't pick up when she called. She threw a sweatshirt over her pyjamas and rushed over. She found him sitting lifeless on his bed with his computer on his lap. It was Aug. 21, 2011. He was 37.

Another son, Tyler, ruptured his Achilles tendon playing football, took prescription opioids for the pain and became dependent on them. When Rian died, he stepped up to heroin. After five years of extreme substance use, he was going to Alcoholics Anonymous and seemed to be doing better. Then one day he bought what he believed was heroin and used it in his ex-wife's apartment.

It turned out to be pure fentanyl.

Ms. Jennens followed a fire truck to the apartment and rushed in.

She was at Tyler's side as paramedics tried to revive him. It was Jan. 14, 2016. He had just turned 40. Ms. Jennens, 65, is raising his two children: Mac, 15, and Talay, 10.

She has a tattoo on each foot, one for each son. The tattoo for Rian says: "A child of my heart you will ever be." Tyler's says "beloved son" in Thai. He learned the language while running a dive shop in Thailand. Some of his ashes are mixed into the tattoo ink. Ms. Jennens's only surviving child, Brie, has a memorial tattoo of her own for her brothers.

"The loss of a child - the grief never goes away," Ms. Jennens says. "It's a permanent state. The best you can do is learn how to manage it day by day. I just wanted to do something to recognize that grief is forever long."


Angela Welz didn't think she was the type for tattoos: "I am 57 years old. I am not a rebel in any shape or form." But she felt the need for a connection to her daughter, Zoe.

Zoe was an A student, a fast runner and a keen soccer player. She loved to draw when she was little and always had crayons in front of her. But the family went into a tailspin when her father was diagnosed with cancer and his mother, Zoe's grandmother, died. Reeling from the loss and suffering from low self-esteem, Zoe turned to drugs and left home. Her mother took every chance to warn her that fentanyl kills. Zoe always told her not to worry, "I'm going to be careful." One day, Ms. Welz got a call from the hospital: Zoe was on life support. She had overdosed from fentanyl in the hallway of the place where she had lived. She died on Nov. 7, 2016, at the age of 18.

Zoe's heart, lungs liver and kidney were donated, helping to save four lives. Ms. Welz says the heart drawn on her pulse point helps her to cope. "When I look at it or touch the heart I can feel my heart beating and that makes me feel closer to her. In that moment, I really feel her life within me." ANGIE ALLEN ORILLIA, ONT.

Angie Allen says her son, Tyson, was "quite a little devil" as a boy. "Right from when he could barely speak he was cracking jokes and making you laugh," Ms. Allen says. He would always be climbing the highest tree and loved his Spider-Man outfit. "I think he wore that costume for about three years." Artistic and musical, Tyson learned to play a mean guitar and could perform Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven without a hitch.

When he was little, he had several surgeries. As he got older, he suffered from anxiety and depression. For release he turned to marijuana, then crack cocaine and then liquor. He was 19 when he died of an overdose at a drug dealer's place on Oct. 3, 2017. The drug was carfentanil, a synthetic opioid so powerful veterinarians use it to tranquilize elephants.

Ms. Allen had her tattoo done this March 6, on what would have been his 21st birthday. It shows a blue gull feather, because a gull was his favourite bird and blue his favourite colour. The line through the feather is Tyson's heartbeat when she was giving birth to him. Ms.

Allen went back to the hospital and was amazed to find it still had the fetal-monitor readout. The elaborate signature, which he created for himself, comes from papers she found in his room.

T he opioid crisis is killing an average of 12 people a day in Canada, leaving friends and family struggling for ways to cope with a deep and sudden loss. One way is to record it on their skin.

Tattoos that show the name, signature, fingerprint or heartbeat of the person who died are becoming increasingly popular as the crisis grinds on. Some are ornate and rich with symbolism, others are strikingly simple. A few even incorporate a trace of the person's remains by mixing their ashes with the ink.

"It's like a talisman that a person can hold onto," says Leslie McBain, who co-founded Moms Stop the Harm, which represents the families of victims. She has a raven on her right arm in memory of her son, Jordan Miller, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, when he was only 25. A trickster - smart, funny, sometimes loud and naughty - he had many of the raven's qualities, she says.

For Helen Jennens of Kelowna, B.C., who has lost two sons to opioids and has memorial tattoos on both feet, the tattoos are also a way to shatter the stigma those suffering from drug addiction often carry. "If I am not afraid to brand myself in a way - to acknowledge I don't have any shame - it's showing that my boys had a chronic, relapsing disease, not a moral failing, and I'm not afraid to talk about it."

The Globe and Mail spoke to people across the country about their tattoos and those that they honour.


Mary Sumann's fiancé, David Powell, was a free spirit who spent years hitchhiking back and forth across Canada. Though he never finished high school, he taught himself to read music and play the mandolin. He had a knack for fixing things - cars, bikes, anything mechanical - and loved dogs. When the couple found themselves with no place to live one summer, they took the ferry to Salt Spring Island, set up camp in the bush and raised the puppies born to David's dog Deliah.

When they foraged for food, David taught Ms. Sumann to spot edible plants such as lamb's quarters and horsetail.

David had suffered from depression since his teenage years and often turned to drugs. He had been clean for five years when he relapsed and started using again.

He ended up in a hospital psychiatric ward. He overdosed two weeks after being released. When Ms. Sumann couldn't reach him, she sent police to his house.

There was a kit with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone there, but no one to use it on him.

Ms. Sumann's tree of life tattoo includes David's thumbprint, because "he left his print on my soul." The tattoo took several sessions to complete. Getting it was painful - "I have screamed, I have cried," Ms. Sumann says - "but nothing compared with losing David. I tend to bottle things up, so this has been a way to get it out."

NICOLE INEESE-NASH TORONTO Nicole Ineese-Nash grew up in Toronto in a family from the Constance Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario, north of Timmins. Her mother struggled with alcoholism and, after a bad fall, prescription opioids. Parties at their house could go on for three or four days. Her big brother Conway, 11 years older, always looked out for her, putting her to bed when a party was raging. Once, when a mean drunk with a baseball bat was coming up the stairs, Conway stood in his way. "He would have my back no matter what."

He showed her how to skateboard. He took her tobogganing, using cardboard boxes to slide on.

When she was only 5, he taught her to play Metallica's Enter Sandman on the guitar. Although he had a demons of his own, and spent time in jail, to her "he was like a big friendly bear."

He encouraged her when she made progress at school. Ms. Ineese-Nash is working on a PhD in social-justice education at the University of Toronto. "He was the one who always believed in me," she says. "He would always tell me: 'You can do this. You're so smart.' " Conway overdosed from a mix of cocaine and methadone on March 29, 2018, at the age of 39.

Ms. Ineese-Nash and her partner, artist Nyle Miigizi Johnston, have been raising his two small children. She feels he is looking down on her as they struggle with their new responsibilities. Her tattoo, designed by Mr. Johnston, shows her standing with their family under a guardian tree, which is protecting them as he protected her. The stars stand for his oversight. "Those stars are always going to be there and he's always going to be there watching us," she says.


Christian Forget and his best friend, Luke Martin Kitson, "basically grew up together," Mr. Forget says. At sleepovers, they would build blanket forts and play video games. Mr. Forget says his best memories of his friend are from family camping trips to Massasauga Provincial Park on Georgian Bay. Luke loved sitting around the campfire and making s'mores. "That was his favourite part. We used to run around the fire and say: 'My butt's on fire, my butt's on fire.' His laugh was the best. It was contagious."

The boys were separated when Luke moved away in high school. Luke struggled with drugs.

One morning, his mother went to wake him for church and found him dead. It was Mother's Day, 2017.

"I got the tattoo on my side mostly because I didn't need people to see it," Mr. Forget says. "I just personally know that it's there and that my opinion of him will never change, no matter the kind of stuff he got into. It's not that he was a bad person, it's just a bad world."

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