Mall memorial tree humanizes loved ones lost to drug toxicity

The tree, located at Northills Mall, features photographs and names of over 50 Kamloops residents lost to drug toxicity.
A close up of two paper ornaments hung on a white tree. One says "Robert R you will be forever in our hearts" while the other says "I love you with all my heart uncle Matt, I miss you."
A memorial tree at Northills Mall is honouring over 50 Kamloops residents lost to drug toxicity. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

The holidays aren’t always easy for everyone, but in B.C. many chairs around festive holiday tables will be empty due to illicit drug toxicity and overdose death. 

Illicit drug toxicity is the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia. According to the province, at least 10,505 British Columbians have died because of illicit drug use since substance-related harm was declared a public health emergency in April 2016. 

According to the latest data provided by the B.C. Coroners Service, 74 people died in Kamloops because of toxic drugs before November this year. 

To help mourners remember their lost loved ones, the Kamloops chapter of Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) has set up a memorial tree at Northills Mall decorated with photographs and names of over 50 Kamloops residents lost to drug toxicity.

Memorial tree set up at Northhills Mall to honour those lost to illicit drug-related death glows. The tree is white and decorated with purple ribbons and ornaments featuring the names and faces of those lost.
The memorial tree at Northills Mall honours those lost to illicit drug use. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

‘You aren’t alone’

MSTH is a Canadian network of families impacted by illicit drug toxicity, substance-related harms and overdose death. Together, members advocate for changes to drug-related policies, provide peer support for families experiencing grief and find help for family members or loved ones struggling with substance abuse. 

Troylana Manson, an MSTH organizer, sat down with The Wren last week to discuss her own experience with loss and the importance of the mall’s memorial tree ahead of the holiday hubbub. 

She says she hopes the tree can help humanize those who have died from illicit drug toxicity instead of reducing them to numbers and statistics.

This is because Manson suddenly lost her son Aaron on April 26, 2021, due to an unintentional overdose after he used recreational drugs and a high amount of Kratom, an opioid derived from Mitragyna speciosa, an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia.

Kratom is widely available on the internet and is often sold in pill or powder form. It is legal in many states in the U.S. and sometimes sold next to tobacco products at gas stations. In Canada, Health Canada does not authorize the sale of Kratom for human consumption but possessing it is not illegal.

The psychoactive herb is known to pose health risks when inhaled or swallowed, including drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and seizures. Health Canada advises against its use.

"I was more than an addict. I was a son, grandson, brother, uncle, nephew, friend, lover," reads a paper ornament hung on the tree.
One of many tributes to lost loved ones affixed to the Northills tree. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

Manson believes stigma, a lack of education and zero regulation surrounding Kratom played a large part in her son’s death.

“I’m of the opinion that without regulation, people aren’t afforded the ability to use safely here in Canada,” says Manson.

She shares that after Aaron’s death, she had anxieties surrounding the use of Kratom and considered advocating for stricter laws concerning it. But after speaking with Kratom advocates, she says she realized the positives associated with decriminalization and even legalization.

Manson says she now advocates for the legalization of all drugs and says legalization would not increase drug use.

“Substance abuse depends on a variety of factors, many of which have much to do with mental health difficulties,” she says. “If Fentanyl is legalized, for example, does that mean I’m going to go out and buy it? No. I’m going to go out and buy my bottle of wine as I usually do.”

Memorial tree could open avenues for healing

Manson says those who visit Northills Mall can access a table set up beside the tree. It features information on Holding Hope, a support group offered by MSTH for those actively supporting someone with a substance use disorder, and Healing Hearts, a support group also offered by MSTH for those experiencing the loss of a loved one due to substance use and related harm. 

Those who visit can also place a paper heart with the name of a lost loved one on the wall adjacent to the tree.

Paper hearts adjacent to a memorial tree set up to honour those lost to illicit-drug related death in Kamloops.
Paper hearts sit adjacent to the memorial tree. Those who have come by to visit started the makeshift installation. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

“We didn’t originally plan for that but are thrilled that the makeshift installation has grown,” Manson says. 

Manson says those interested in having a loved one’s name or photo added to the tree can email MSTH at [email protected] and have a paper ornament added to the tree discretely. The tree will be on display until Dec. 30. 

“To those who are grieving, know that you aren’t alone,” Manson says. “This time of year can be very difficult for those experiencing loss because nothing can ever fill that seat left empty at the holiday table. There are so many other families and individuals that can empathize with your feelings and your experience.”

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