Vigils to Honor Overdose Victims on International Overdose Awareness Day

Friday marks an important day for people throughout the world who have lost a family member, friend or other loved one to a drug overdose. August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, a time to remember those who have died far too soon and support those suffering from the grief of losing a loved one. The event also aims to reduce the stigma associated with addiction and overdose deaths. Several vigils will be held throughout New Jersey, including one organized by the Burlington County Coalition, king’s Crusade, NJTIP and Oxford Houses of New Jersey from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Burlington County Amphitheater in Westampton.

This week, I invite Anne Gutos, co-founder of King’s Crusade, to write about the importance of vigils remembering the victims of overdoses. During the past year, King’s Crusade has emerged as a tremendous partner of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. The organization was an active participant in the Burlington County Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall held last October and a sponsor of this year’s Third Annual Breakfast for Families and Communities Impacted by Opioid Abuse held in February in Mount Laurel. Anne, her sister, Suzanne, and her mother, Judy, have also contributed guest blogs in the past, informing readers on the great work King’s Crusade is doing to help those in recovery. I am grateful that the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey will be a part of Friday night’s vigil, and I am looking forward to continued collaboration with King’s Crusade to help fight the opioid epidemic.

By Anne Gutos

Throughout my life I have seen many vigils on the news when people have lost someone through some sort of senseless crime or tragedy. From a distance they have always seemed to help those who are still living by gathering in a ritualistic way for remembrance through prayer and solidarity. I actually was always grateful that I never have had to experience one. That is until October 29, 2016, when my brother tragically died from a heroin/fentanyl overdose. My world collapsed and life closed in on me. Life would be not be the same for me ever again.

The only recourse I felt I had was to fight back and help others from the same fate my family had suffered. It wasn’t long after my brother, King W. Shaffer Jr.’s death that my mother, Judy, and my sister, Suzanne, and I started King’s Crusade. King’s Crusade is nonprofit with the mission to rid the stigma of the disease of addiction and help families and those struggling with addiction find resources and help support the needs of those in recovery. Since we immersed in our journey, the death toll has continued to climb at an incomprehensible rate. The nation is now losing 179 people a day to overdose. In 2017 our nation had 72,000 deaths from drug overdose. In New Jersey alone, the opioid overdose reversal antidote naloxone has been deployed approximately 20,000 or more times since 2014. Rescuers armed with naloxone have saved many fortunate people from becoming what signifies a burning candle at a vigil. I can’t grasp how many more candles would be burning without naloxone.

I attended my first vigil with my sister, Suzanne. We both felt an overwhelming sense of sadness mixed with the reality that we were not alone as we stood in unity with other families who lost their loved ones to the same tragedy. The burning candles seemed like a sea of grief, yet to my amazement the intense light radiating from all of the candles together looked and felt like an ocean of hope. I realized the vigils, where families and friends gather to find strength and hope, help us to carry on in our forever changed lives. They are places where the world can see the direct effect that addiction has had on so many families, and where I can remember my beautiful brother’s life and the light he gave to his family and friends and pay respect to other lives lost.

Vigils are a reminder to all with the disease of addiction that love and support is out there, recovery is possible, and we will fight for their flames to burn bright. I hope New Jersey will take part in International Overdose Awareness Day and bring hope to those who are still fighting and respect to those whose flame has been extinguished long before their time from the misunderstood disease of addiction. 


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