GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A CHILD TO DRUGS
I am talking today with Jeffrey Veatch who will be talking about his personal journey of grief.
Welcome, Jeff. Thank you, Linda. Nice to be here and of course everybody has a story. I guess I have one too. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us your personal story.
Jeffery Veatch – We lost our son Justin when he was 17 years old in 2008. So it’s been more than nine years but course the impact is forever. Justin was a very talented young man. I mean as he grew up we knew we would be involved in music because he was drawn to musical things, but he also participated in all the organized sports. He had a very healthy childhood and later on, he developed his music abilities. He had piano lessons when he was six years old and did recitals on the grand piano. We gave him a guitar when he was 12 years old and he picked it up and taught himself. A few weeks later he did this amazing recording. I play it for kids sometimes. It totally shocked us. He definitely had this special talent, and he began to record. He had great friends; he had a well-balanced life. When we lost him, he had written and recorded professionally six of his songs, and he was in the process of writing 1/2 dozen more for an album he dreamed of recording.
That was all great but as a family, we did stumble and he stumbled too. When he was 14 years old he began to smoke marijuana with his friends. “Everybody’s doing it” they say, and we had many a battle with him over this. He had counseling, he did a lot of things and as a family, we struggled. He has one sister who was three years younger than him. That’s our family. We went to counseling. We had, you know, thought about it and actually, eventually his friends seemed to be well adjusted and we thought he didn’t have a real problem. And that all kind when way.
After he was 16,17, we weren’t so concerned about it anymore. But then when he was a junior in high school, there were real symptoms that were cropping up, and we were totally blindsided by what was happening to Justin. We thought maybe it was just being a teen, being an adolescent but we finally ended up getting him to see a psychiatrist. He was in terrible moods. His work ethic had diminished. He was beginning to skip classes in school. You know this was very serious to us. He had a blood test. In that test, it showed that he was in over his head in substances and we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to have him hospitalized. Get him away from this, and we did. He spent a month at a treatment center in Pennsylvania. He came home so much better. He was eating right, seemed healthy. We organized a lot of things. We change his cell phone, tried to monitor his friends. He was 17.
We had great hope at this point in his life and in our lives that we would be able to handle this, but then there was a Sunday afternoon. The Sunday before the first full week as a senior at high school. He was out with friends we didn’t know, and we couldn’t reach him on his phone and he spent all day out there. Apparently, he had taken some substances.
He came home late and ended up somewhere along the line snorting heroin through a straw, and he never woke up. He went to bed, he ate dinner, and we didn’t have any inkling that there was a problem. The next morning at 6:20 in the morning, his alarm was going off. His sister and his mother making breakfast. I was driving to work in New York City at that time, and I had my cell phone on vibrate from the night before for some reason or another, and I didn’t hear anything thing.
His mom called paramedics, and that call ended in a parent’s worst nightmare. My son never woke up and he was gone. I always try to find the words to describe what it was like. You know I got to work and I looked at my phone when I parked in the garage. I see all these calls – calls from work calls from home. Well, I called work first, and work says don’t come in. Call home right away. Of course, I called home, and I don’t know how I managed, but I had to go back to the garage and get the car and drive another 45 minutes to get back home. When I got home, the medical examiner’s van was in the driveway. They waited for me so I could see Justin and I’ll never forget the picture of him and in a body bag. I’m touching him, and he’s not there. He’s gone and course all my hopes and dreams as a parent. We all know, the same way, gone, vanished. We always want to see our children do better than us and follow them through their lives. Hoping that, you know, helping them out, making sure that they make good decisions and whatever. Thinking that they are going to have a better life than us.
That was actually the beginning of the second part of my life which is change, turned upside down. We had as a family to deal with this and we had to decide how we were going to do it and wasn’t very easy.
Coach Linda – before you go into that part of your story, I just have to say just hearing you speak about your son and going into your home, I felt like weeping as a parent. I can’t even imagine so thank you for your openness and your courage to speak about your son in those moments. Did you ever return to your job at that point?
Jeffery Veatch- I did. I’d been a staff employee for 25 years, but I left the company a few years earlier on a buyout. I was in the news, business broadcast news so when the Iraq war started they hired me back as a freelance so I would be a per diem freelancer. They would schedule me two weeks in advance to be on the schedule. So after Justin died, I was still on the schedule for that week, and I would be on the schedule for whenever it came out. I was working two or three days week perhaps and immediately, of course, the people from my workplace got a hold of me and told me to take as much time as I wanted to. Don’t worry about it and in fact, they went one step further. They didn’t have to do this. They said we’re putting in your pay slip for the hours you are scheduled. We’re paying you. Don’t worry about it. We’ll keep you on the payroll while you’re recovering, while you’re going through this terrible time. That was a nice thing for them to do, and they said to take as much time as you can, as you want.
You know I didn’t want to take too much time. I’ll tell you why. Because I felt like I could not just sit there and mourn and do nothing else. So within three weeks, I was back at work because I thought it was the best thing for me to do, to focus on other things. So it was a very good thing and they treated me very well even though they didn’t have to pay me for work I didn’t do. They went the extra step and were very kind and my supervisor, not my immediate supervisor but the person who was at the top of our unit, talked to me numerous times. Asked me how I was. Told me that he understands and if I need to leave or anything just to let them know when I could take time off, but I continued on my schedule.
Coach Linda – How about your peers? I often hear that people avoid somebody that’s in the throes of grief especially something as sensitive as the death of the child and others say things that are comforting, some are not. Can you briefly talk about that?
Jeffery Veatch – I know it’s natural to avoid people who have a tremendous loss. I mean, you have to confront them sooner or later and then you don’t know what to say. People don’t have the words; they don’t understand that people who are grieving just want someone to be there for them and just be available not necessarily have to say this or that.
My colleagues, whenever I got on the phone with someone (I worked in the studio, so I was kind of in my own pod) because I would do interviews with newsmakers and connect with other correspondents and people like that, and in those connections they remembered what happened to me and said how sorry they were. In the actual newsroom itself, people would come up and begin to talk and others would not because they just didn’t know how to deal with it. I was not trying to be in their face or anything. I just when about my job. And newsrooms are different. It’s a different work environment you’re kind of in. We were broadcasting so there is insulation between you and other workers. You’re actually working with a computer and talking to people and recording and do things like that. But there’s a time when you get together a few minutes like the “water cooler” talk. I found that people were there for me. They were very helpful but so many people just didn’t know how to deal with it, and they might not even talk to me at all, and when I did see them the walls would come down, and we begin to have that conversation, but I never felt comfortable forcing myself on anyone. I have great empathy for people. I don’t want other people to feel bad. I’m just one of those people that go around saying I want to make people feel good. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable so I never really kind went out of my way to be in too many places where I would put people in that situation. But it was unique at work because we’re in the broadcasting business and some programs were on the air that dealt with a variety of issues and actually we became the subject of one program not only on radio but on network television. Justin’s story was told.
But we had a decision to make. This was in 2008, and the drug crisis was not really where it is today. It’s progressed to such an extent that it’s commonplace for people in towns to have lost someone. And it’s this way in every city and town across the United States. in 2008 it was a rarer thing. It was very unusual and losing a child to an accidental drug overdose had a stigma. You don’t know how to deal with it. You feel like wow. I mean, we lost our son yeah that’s bad enough, but it’s even worse how he died because it was drug abuse. So we had to make a decision after he died and I’ll tell you personally, I was on the forefront of this decision more than my wife. His mother was in a terrible state and his sister, she just didn’t know what to do so she would just stay quiet about it, and she would just be there. She was a freshman in high school time, and she shared with her friends. Her friends helped her a lot. But my wife, his mother was suicidal at times. She was angry, “why us?”, “what if?”. Those things went on and on and on. We wanted to get his story out. I know we did and I was at the tip of the sword so to speak, to get it out there.
We decided we would be as open as possible. We would tell everything about what happened to Justin. We would talk about his life. We would try to use him as an example and create something we could communicate with other people, and by doing so for me personally, it was therapy. That was amazing therapy because when I shared his story, the more I shared his story, the better I felt about Justin still being with me and helping other people. And that to me was very important. Not to avoid it. There were too many cases where people would shut up and just hold it inside and wouldn’t talk about it. We went steps further because of the nature of what I do, you know being in the news business. I wanted to make it into something that was going to be bigger than us, and that’s what we tried to do.
Coach Linda – It’s excellent. I cannot tell you but deeply moved I am having heard his story and having known what you do. Please tell the listeners how this changed your life and the path that you did take.
Jeffery Veatch – I talk about turning my life upside down. I had never spoken to people before in groups. I was on the radio for a few years. I was a disc jockey. I did news, but I never faced a situation where I would be talking about personal things in front of a group of people. This was probably the hardest thing that I could do, to figure out how I would deliver a message. I went through his photographs. You know a lot of things were not digital. His childhood was in hard copy photos. His mom couldn’t bear even broaching the subject. She was so fragile. I had to be very careful about what I would say to my wife because I didn’t want her to go through this period of terrible anxiety and grief because she would be set off very easily and so rather than try to stir that up I would do this on my own. She went back to work eventually to, and I would spend the time going through things and trying to set up things for a talk. I would scan these pictures, images of his life. I wanted to tell people that “here’s a normal healthy young person who had everything in the world that he needed” and he was creative.
Justin was going to this huge creative spurt when he was 15, 16, 14 even. Even though that was the case, these things happen. But I wanted to be able to kind of layout a narration, and it took time, and I’d started a talk. People helped me. They said we’ll invite some people and you can do your talk, and it will be a friendly audience. All numbers of people. While I was doing this, I have to kind of paint this picture, we created a nonprofit call the Justin Veatch Fund to honor Justin. So we decided we would honor his legacy. He could do no wrong you know at this point. I would tell about what happened. I wanted to honor his legacy, and we began to award scholarships to graduating high school seniors involved in music. The first one was awarded nine months after he died to a classmate, someone whom he would’ve graduated with. Actually, he was a friend, and that fund has expanded over the years. We were doing this. We were also doing open mics with our local teen center. They asked us because we created this organization to do the open mics and it was amazing therapy for all of us because it was a crowded room, the kids got to perform for the first time and they would become addicted to the idea that they could perform in front of their friends and not be embarrassed. So this was all going on and then evolved into other music programs, music workshops and things like that. So this evolved into my talk too. I ended up talking about not only what happened to him and his loss but also what we did as a family that changed the landscape considerably for all of us. Not only for us as a family, but also for the people around us who wanted to do something but had no idea what they could do. Just being a part of what we were doing was therapy for everybody.
Coach Linda – it’s really an impressive, impressive attitude. As you’re speaking I’m thinking not only is it therapy for all of you and a way for your friends and family to help you but it also is permission and courage for other families who have a similar loss to speak out and be open and some of this terrible, terrible drug problem that is going on.
Jeffery Veatch – Absolutely and of course at the same time we’re trying to create awareness, and I talk about his transition. You know, the marijuana and then the opioid painkillers and that his friends were giving him pills Then the fact that some people are more genetically predisposed to experiment with drugs than others and Justin was among them. We had a feeling that marijuana for Justin was a gateway whereas, for his other friends who we keep up with, by the way, it wasn’t the same impact. They could take it or leave it. They enjoyed it, but they didn’t take another step further. And so we talk about the opioids and how dangerous that is and how that can lead to the heroin because it’s available on the street and of course the risks that are involved in anything that comes from the street. This is what’s happening in our country.
So we use this forum as a message to tell the story and also to warn the kids. The goal of my talk is to inspire young people to take better care of themselves by remembering Justin’s story and what happened to him and also inspire them to watch out for their friends. Not to wait for an adult to take action when one of their friends is in trouble. They need to be proactive. They need to say something. Talk to the person, talk to the family. I have stories I can tell about what happened to us and that some of his friends knew what he was doing, but they were afraid to say anything. They knew that he was involved in things that he shouldn’t have been involved in, but they didn’t talk to us.
In my talk, this is amazing because it evolved over time but in my talk, we managed just three years ago to revisit Justin’s friends in a film situation where we could do interviews with them and talk. I was not in the room. We had a producer doing the interviews, and they told us volumes about what they knew and how they felt about all this. I use this in my talk. I have a multimedia talk that uses film clips and things like that, and I use that as an example. They knew something they might’ve have been able to save his life by speaking up but they didn’t, and they carry that with them. These young people they come to our house on January 5 every year since Justin died whether invited or not. That’s Justin’s birthday. They knock on our door at 7 o’clock, and we visit. We catch up. Sometimes they go down to his studio in the basement, and we play music. It’s an amazing thing. They are a critical part of our story because they have the answer to some of the problems that we’re facing with drug abuse. They need to talk about it; to share information with other people and they know it. So our story is also told in the film. Whispering Spirits it’s called. The film is titled after one of Justin’s songs that he recorded entirely in our basement and the music that he had is on the CD that has been sold, streamed in 30 countries and all 50 states. When Justin died, I’m in deep grief, but I also thought about what he left us. He left us all this material. His music and this was a great gift. He had six songs that were recorded that are beautiful. He had other songs, but we couldn’t do anything with them because they weren’t ready so my idea was to go back through Justin’s time, his experience with music and try to find the people who he had admired and see if they would be interested in covering one of his songs. It was not easy to get past the gatekeeper as you can imagine.
Coach Linda- I can imagine.
Jeffery Veatch – but I finally reached out to a fellow named Mike Kinsella in Chicago. We had gone to some of his concerts. He performed as a singular act Owen. I actually reach him by email, and he said “I heard the story. I’m so sorry to hear that. He was doing exactly what I’ve done when I started, and I want to help out” I will cover one of his songs. He picked one of them out, and it took a few months to do this, but other bands came forward. There was a band of Toronto Canada called Boys Night Out (there no longer together), but they called me out of the blue. I guess they heard about Mike and said they’d like cover one of the songs and guess what, this group I had never heard of, I didn’t know anything about them, I looked them up online, and it said they had millions of fans, amazing they turned out to be one of Justin’s favorite groups.
Coach Linda – Wow.
Jeffery Veatch – So if you can imagine, the floodgates were opening, and there were other groups from New York and from Dallas Texas and from Orlando and other parts of the country. Even the singer-songwriter I’d introduced him to was very supportive from Brazil who translated one of Justin’s songs into Portuguese and recorded it so talk about therapy!
We have this CD, the album that Justin had named himself Permagrin as a way of remembering him, but it’s also a way for us to send Justin’s message to other people. In the process of doing all this, a couple of young filmmakers approached me early on a few years back, and they want to do a film because they saw what we were doing. They knew what happened, but they also saw how we were reacting to it. So they follow us around. The film took two and half years to produce. But now it’s there. It’s called “Whispering Spirits,” named after one of his songs and we use it. There’s a discussion guide that goes with it, and we got a grant to make it available to people anywhere in the country that are teachers and groups so that they could have a screening and have a discussion afterward about the situations. And so that has become a tool which we’re very proud of. We never made any money off it because we didn’t want to. We had a grant. We could just get it out there, and anyone who goes to the website whispering – spirits.com cannot only watch the film but if they want to show it in community form, they can get a copy of it free of charge, and there’s a discussion guide goes with it.
Coach Linda- it is such a powerful message that you have put together in Justin’s honor. I am just amazed at how you have been able to do that. You and your family and I applaud you. I can’t even imagine how many lives you touched and saved based on what you are doing. Thank you so much for sharing all of your information with me. Please Jeff, before we end our conversation give the website for the fund that you have set up so that if people are interested, they can go to that site as well.
Jeffery Veatch – sure Linda. It’s the JustinVeatchFund.org. We also have Facebook pages, the Justin Veatch Gund and I also have. My talk is called a message from Justin, and there’s a Facebook page for that too – A Message From Justin and that’s the 40-minute multimedia talk. We love to hear from people and thank you so much, Linda, for having me on your program.
Coach Linda – you’re welcome and thank you. Thank you for sharing not only with me but with the world.
Jeffery Veatch – thank you.