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A program in Philadelphia helps heal those grieving overdose losses

More than 100,000 Americans die of drug overdoses every year — which means a far greater number are grieving their loved ones.
Posted at 6:21 PM, Dec 07, 2023

Mike and Jenn Doyle tear up as they share a poem written by their daughter, Olivia.

Lately I've been feeling so alone

Like I have no one to turn to, no place to call home

The only place I can feel happy anymore is in my high

It's like I'm living two different lives

Olivia wrote the poem that now sits in a frame at the home of her parents.

"Olivia was somebody who would see people that other people didn't see," Jenn Doyle said. "She would be friends with people that other people would overlook."

Just before she became a teenager, Olivia fell into addiction, first with Vicodin, then alcohol and cocaine, then deeper.

"I actually gave up custody of Olivia to the foster system because I thought that they could keep her safe when I couldn't," Jenn said. "I couldn't keep her safe. I didn't know where she was going or what she was doing and my 13-year-old would disappear for 48 hours."

Last October, in a Philadelphia hotel room, Olivia overdosed on a depressant laced with fentanyl and died. She was 26.

"I was absolutely devastated," Jenn said. "I didn't want to live anymore. I didn't know how I was going to live without her."

It was in those darkest days after her daughter's death that Jenn Doyle received a call from Kaitlin Worden. In a city where overdose takes a hundred lives a month, Worden runs a program for those left behind.

"Grief care is not always sitting there and talking about your problems," Worden said. "It's giving them things to live for … and I think Philly needs a lot more of that."

Harm reduction gains attention, controversy in battling overdoses
A box of needles collected at a homeless encampment

Harm reduction gains attention, controversy in battling overdoses

Harm reduction — providing a safer way to use drugs — has become a topic of passionate debate in this Philadelphia neighborhood.


The program is called Philly HEALs

The state of Pennsylvania lists eight pages of grief support groups specifically for loved ones of victims of overdose. But they're run from the community, through churches and nonprofits. Those in need must seek them out. Philly HEALs is run by the city. When someone dies of an overdose in the city, the medical examiner connects Worden's team to the next of kin. They offer therapy, first one-on-one, then with a group. It's all free, no insurance required, no barriers for those often at their lowest. 

"I see it as preventative care," said Worden, "because you would not believe how many people die from a drug overdose within a month of losing somebody that they really dearly loved, maybe to an overdose or not."

Jenn and Mike Doyle don't live in Philadelphia — they're in a suburb 10 miles away. But because Olivia was in the city when she died, her parents got the call from Philly HEALs. Today they say that call saved Jenn's life.

"I had a plan on New Year's Eve," Jenn said. "I was like, 'I'm not doing another year without my daughter. I'm not doing it.' And funny enough, Kaitlin in my head that night is the reason that I didn't."

Regarding Philly HEALs, Jenn said, "These people are as broken as they're going to get. We've lost our brothers, you know, daughters, mothers, fathers. We're just has broken as you're going to get. And these ladies are just walking into the fire and saying, 'I'm not a fire extinguisher, but I'll stand beside you and try not to let us both burn.'"

"They put their trust in me because I was the only one reaching out at a time when most people stay away," said Worden. "But they let me in. I'm really glad because we need them here." 

The issues around overdose are massive and complicated. So many loved ones need grief support because so many are dying. Last year in Philadelphia, that number cleared 1,400. The number served by Philly HEALs cleared 1,800.

That number includes Jenn Doyle. They recently read Olivia's poem at a Philly HEALs event. They do it to praise a program that treated them with dignity in their darkest days and to honor their daughter however they can.