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As overdose deaths rise, more children are growing up without parents

Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health  | 01.30.18

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Denise Shanahan, right, walks with her friend and neighbor Mike Schaub, who pushes Jorden and Kaden Shanahan in a stroller. Denise Shanahan is raising her grandchildren after losing her daughter Bryanna to a drug overdose. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)

Jorden Shanahan is like many five-year-olds: He loves playing with toys, laughing at funny TV shows and showing off his drawings and other prized possessions. 

They include a picture of his mother, Bryanna, smiling, holding him when he was infant. It’s a reminder of one way in which his childhood will differ from many others his age. 

Two years ago, when Jorden was three, he found his mother dead of an opioid overdose in her bedroom.  

He refers to her as “my mommy who died,” or “my mommy in heaven.” Her presence is found throughout the house in pictures and home movies, but it stands to reason that Jorden would have almost no memory of her. 

“He’s been with me since he was two,” says his 56-year-old grandmother, Denise Shanahan, who is raising Jorden and his two-year-old brother Kaden at her home in Stewartstown, York County.

Jorden’s father also has struggled with heroin addiction, and Shanahan got custody of Jorden while Bryanna was still alive. Shanahan says Kaden never knew his father, and is still too young to understand what happened to his mother.    

Shanahan’s circumstances are becoming more and more familiar to those on the frontlines of an opioid crisis that took 64,000 lives nationwide in 2016 alone — a number higher than the death toll of U.S. servicemembers during the Vietnam War. 

Early reports show 5,500 Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses in 2017. That’s more than any year on record and continues the year-over-year trend of record overdose deaths.

Nationwide, overdoses have replaced suicide as the number one cause of death for people under 50 years old.

Despite federal and state efforts to address the emergency, experts say overdose deaths are expected to increase in the next couple years before they might begin to level off. That’s because people already addicted to prescription drugs are likely to turn to heroin, which is increasingly being laced with powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl.  

It’s less clear what all this means for the thousands of children who will grow up without parents, as well as for the grandparents who will spend their last years taking care of those children. 

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Bryanna Shanahan holds her son Jorden. Bryanna died Dec. 16, 2015 from an overdose of drugs laced with fentanyl. (Submitted)

Shanahan remembers her daughter as a spirited girl who made the mistake of trying prescription drugs when she was 14 years old. 

Bryanna didn’t know her own father. Shanahan says, she raised Bryanna and her sister as a single mother. 

Bryanna was able to get clean for about a year, but eventually returned to heroin.  

“We suspected she was using again,” Shanahan said. “[My daughter] Krista said, ‘Look in her diaper bag.’ And the first time I do, there’s a needle.” 

Within a year, Bryanna was dead. 

Shanahan worries what effect the loss will have on Jorden and Kaden. She says Bryanna was using drugs while pregnant with Jorden, and although he appears to be unharmed by it, she worries that he could be prone to addiction as he gets older. 

She also worries about the psychological fallout from the loss. 

“A couple times [Jorden] said he wishes we would die, and I said why, and he said so we can visit her,” Shanahan said. “That really gets to you, because they just don’t know.”

At Olivia’s House in York, program director Julia Dunn says sentiments like that are actually quite common for children who have lost a parent.

“Believe it or not, a common feeling in that age group is, I want to be in heaven with my father, or I want to be with him in the afterlife. And they’re not saying they’re planning to complete suicide. They’re saying I want to be with him.” 

Olivia’s House helps children deal with grief and loss. Shanahan says it’s been a great resource for Jorden, Kaden and her. 

Dunn says as the opioid crisis has worsened, an increasing number of children have come to Olivia’s House after losing parents to addiction. Dunn says Olivia’s House gets five to ten calls each day, and 75 percent of those calling have lost someone to drugs.

“We’re seeing grandparents having to raise their grandchildren because the parent dies to an overdose. And it’s always young — they’re three, they’re five.” 

Dunn says for many children, it’s an eye-opening experience just learning that they’re not the only person who lost a parent. In a recent group, four of five boys had lost a parent to an overdose.

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Bryanna Shanahan sits in the hospital after delivering her son Kaden. Her older son Jorden is in the foreground. Bryanna died at age 26 from an opioid overdose. (Submitted)

Marolyn Marford is a child psychologist based in State College. Marford says, though the death of a parent is devastating, all children process things a bit differently.

“We don’t know if the child has incorporated that information as something damaging until we observe the child and ask the child what their response is,” Marford says. 

She says children who have lost a parent to drugs often have already endured experiencing the parent’s addiction. “Children can experience a lot of different things. A car accident. Observing violence. Observing their parents in altered states of consciousness. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re traumatized by this.” 

She notes children around five year old Jorden Shanahan’s age are just beginning to understand the concept of death. As a child grows older, he or she will revisit what happened and wrestle with what it means to lose a parent.

Denise Shanahan tries not to worry, but she often finds herself paying close attention to her boys and wondering if they’re grieving or struggling to understand.

“My biggest thing is, now through life they have not a mother, not a father. I mean, they have people who love them, but not a mother or father.”