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Learn from their heartache

Like thousands of families shattered by drug overdoses, Becky and Mike Savage needed time and space – a breathless, agonizing canyon of pain – to begin to come to terms with the deaths of their two teenage sons. The Savages of Granger, Ind., a town near South Bend, lost two of their four sons on the same night due to accidental overdoses.

Smart, athletic and talented, 19-year-old Nick and 18-year-old Jack went to a graduation party together on June 13, 2015. Nick, a soon-to-be sophomore at Indiana University, and Jack, a soon-to-be freshman at Ball State University, returned home with friends around midnight.

They died sometime overnight, Jack in his bed and Nick in the basement with friends.

... The boys had mixed alcohol and oxycodone. Even a small amount of alcohol with a tablet containing oxycodone can be deadly, medical research has shown. But Nick and Jack, neither with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, didn’t know the dangers. Their friends didn’t know the dangers. Their parents didn’t know the dangers.

Like many parents, the Savages had talked to their boys about drugs and alcohol, drinking and driving, sex – coming-of-age conversations that for decades have become part of the American teenage experience. National education campaigns, school curriculum changes and a cultural shift toward awareness have become part of the growing-up lexicon.

But there’s a gap. Parents and educators are not as vigilant in warning about the dangers of prescription drugs.

Becky Savage has a compelling story to tell young people, their parents and grandparents, their educators and all the adults in their lives. Fourth of July weekend, with families gathered and work schedules light, is an ideal time to read her message – and follow, not sidestep, her advice.

Becky Savage believes the boys were drinking and their altered state of mind, along with peer pressure, contributed to their decision to take painkillers. In her speeches to teens, she reminds them how one bad decision, one first-time experiment, can be deadly.

... The World Drug Report estimates up to 53 million people used opioids in 2017 ... Opioids include illegal drugs, such as heroin; synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and hydrocodone; and legal prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and morphine.

Studies have shown even a small amount of alcohol mixed with oxycodone can cause alarming side effects including respiratory problems. The Savage boys’ cause of death was accidental overdose.

The morning after the party, Becky Savage frantically tried to revive Jack after realizing he was unconscious in bed. While paramedics swarmed the house, she learned that Nick’s friends in the basement – awakened by her screaming – had called first responders for him. But both boys were gone.

... Her advice to parents is to clean out medicine cabinets and have conversations about how to “create an exit plan” a teen can implement when he or she wants to escape a peer-pressure situation. She also tells parents not to overreact if they end up picking up their teens at parties where they shouldn’t have been in the first place. At least the young people are still alive.

On the 525 Foundation’s website, she blogged recently about cleaning out the boys’ bedroom at the family lake house where she still finds respite. Going there became her own escape plan after the deaths of Nick and Jack. Becky, Mike and their younger sons, Justin and Matthew, did not sleep again in the house where the boys died. They drove to the lake instead, every night. Recently, she decided to clean out and update the bunk room, a place that had been largely left alone. Folding and refolding the boys’ little SpongeBob T-shirts lying inside their dresser drawers triggered a wave of grief.

“I told myself their lives gave us memories too beautiful to forget,” she wrote. “I told myself the tears were just love that was overflowing from my heart. I told myself painting a few walls doesn’t erase the memories.? I told myself change can be good, even though it’s difficult.”

Today. This weekend. Please. Have the talk.

This editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.