If you or someone you love has lost someone to the opioid crisis, then it’s worth your while to check out “All Our Hearts“—an online memorial project developed in part by Observer contributor and Jefferson County native Lena Camilletti.
The site not only memorializes victims, but it allows everyday people to share their stories—people like you. From anywhere. The foundation of the project was built out of a statement made within an obituary that went viral in 2018.
Kate O’Neill wrote her sister’s obituary on the website Seven Days, and in one paragraph, stated:
“If you yourself are struggling from addiction, know that every breath is a fresh start. Know that hundreds of thousands of families who have lost someone to this disease are praying and rooting for you. Know that we believe with all our hearts that you can and will make it. It is never too late.”
Seven Days ultimately hired O’Neill to write a year-long series called Hooked: Stories and Solutions for Vermont’s Opioid Crisis. At that time, Seven Days deputy publisher Cathy Resmer proposed a related project: an online memorial that would allow families to memorialize their loved ones the way Kate did for her sister, to awaken empathy for the opioid-use disorder community.
“This spring, Cathy hired myself and Claire Skogsberg to help develop what is now All Our Hearts,” said Camilletti. “When Claire and I joined the team, we were referring to the project as ‘Remember Them.’ It was brought to our attention that that name was stigmatizing in itself. It isolated people affected by the opioid-use disorder to Them. Those people, over there. It created a separation—the opposite of what we wanted to do. Because in reality, this is all of us. We are all affected directly or indirectly. Everyone knows someone affected by this disease, and too many of us lost our someone to it.”
An Opportunity to Heal
Camilletti and Skogsberg were responsible for helping to develop a form that now serves as an initial interview for people who want to share their loved one’s story with All Our Hearts.
Like so many, Camilletti’s motivation is ever-close to the surface. “When I was fifteen, my sister Angela overdosed and died—which was ten years ago this past summer,” she indicated. “From the beginning—before I had the opportunity to work on All Our Hearts—I’ve felt it’s important that I’m forward and up front about my motivation to serve this community—to improve the lives affected by this disease.”
Camilletti and Skogsberg met with community members who work with individuals and families affected by opioid-use disorder, and produced a set of prompts that aim to help people learn who a person is at their core, and the life they lived before and through their substance-use disorder. “My own life experience felt especially helpful for this,” added Camilletti. “I was able to ask myself, ‘How would I respond to this question, if I was sharing Angela’s story?”
After several rounds of editing within Seven Days, and a couple weeks of user-testing, Camilletti and Skogsberg were able to complete three stories for the public launch of the form on August 21 (2019). Since then, tens of thousands of people have visited the website, which now boasts dozens of stories (and growing), and has logged more than 110,000 page views.
“The intention of the project is to awaken empathy for lives affected, and also offer an opportunity for family members and friends to heal,” said Camilletti. “Ultimately, people don’t want their loved one to be forgotten, but remembered for who they were, rather than the disease they experienced.”
But there’s also an undercurrent of self-blame that occurs for so many, she added. “Statements like, ‘I wish I could’ve saved you.’ The realities that exist because of opioid-use disorder do not deteriorate with death, but instead linger far beyond for the people who tried to help, couldn’t help, didn’t know how to help … and those voices, too, have been suppressed, given the stigma our loved one’s experienced.”
As a result, each story published at All Our Hearts, stressed Camilletti, is a vulnerable, honest, and open voice, “… unique to their own experience-based perception of the opioid epidemic.”
Bridging a Gap
The actual website has been live since September, and boasts stories from Florida, Nevada, Texas, West Virginia, Canada, and beyond. “Our goal at this moment is to keep gathering as many stories as we can, and to actively engage with the community in the process,” said Camilletti. “In November, we invited a few people who submitted a story to help us make heart-shaped clay stones. Each stone has our web address, and some are also personalized to honor the loved one our attendees wrote about for All Our Hearts. That process of making the stones was healing, and helped to build a sense of community for people who have a similar experience.”
While the project has been both cathartic and enlightening for Camilletti, it has undoubtedly served as a link between her past, present, and future. “I remember being eleven or twelve years old, hanging around on German Street in Shepherdstown, running into family friends,” she said. “This was around the time Angela was in the depths of opioid-use disorder, and our family was in constant chaos because of it. Conversations often involved whispering, ‘So, how’s your sister doing …’ and I’d whisper, ‘Not good.’”
It isn’t lost on her that her sister’s disease was reduced to a whisper. “I knew my sister was addicted to heroin, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk about it outside of our home. To see, experience, and be a part of the needed shift in conversation surrounding opioid-use disorder is the least I feel that I can do. The stories we are publishing should’ve been shared long before now, and to use my communication skills to help facilitate a productive storytelling space makes me feel like at least one part of the solution to the opioid epidemic is in action.”
While some might feel that Camilletti and her team’s work is more along the lines of advocacy, she believes it truly bridges an information gap. “It aims to tell the stories that, up until recently, were hidden due to stigma, and shame. Cathy said something a few weeks ago that’s stuck with me: she said that our project is picking up where journalism has failed. I believe there is space for the media to care and aim to make a positive impact on a community, while integrating traditional journalism ethics and practices.”By Mike Chalmers