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Project honours 'precious' local lives lost to addiction, mental illness

'This is putting a story to the names. These people were loved. It’s like the world just went on without them,' says creator of Facebook page

Vanessa Sieger-Wilson organized a candlelight vigil last year to remember those who lost their fights with addiction and mental illness, but a vigil only lasts so long.

That’s why she has created a Facebook page, called Their Story Wasn’t Over Yet. It features photos and stories submitted by family members who have lost loved ones, serving as a permanent and living reminder of the toll addiction and mental illness can take.

“I’m hoping it reaches the empathetic side of people to know that everyone who has lost the battle was loved and is loved and they had dreams they wanted to accomplish,” Sieger-Wilson said.

Since creating the page this month, many emotional stories and photos have been shared.

“It’s heavy. It’s hard,” she said.

She personally knew many people who have died. Some are featured on the page, including Shawn Richards.

Richards was 33 years old when a fentanyl overdose took his life on April 30, 2020, a month after finishing a rehab program, according to the write-up on the Facebook page provided by his mother, Johanne.

At that time, she said, her son was “doing well and seemed hopeful for his future.

“He was surrounding himself with positive people, spending lots of time at the gym, and was active in his recovery meetings,” she wrote. “When COVID-19 became an issue, Shawn lost all of his crutches. He began isolating, and with nothing to keep himself busy and with the loss of all of his supports, he relapsed and lost his battle to the tainted drug supply.”

She urged anyone who is struggling to reach out for help.

“Your life is precious.”

Sieger-Wilson was friends with Richards.

“He always had a smile. He was a kind friend. He tried so many times to fight hard,” she said. “He was just a great guy who was wonderful to be around.”

The Facebook page also features a tribute to Lindsay O’Neil, submitted by her mother, Maureen Way. O’Neil was 31 years old when she died of fentanyl poisoning Sept. 24, 2016.

“She had a larger than life personality. When she walked into a room, you felt her energy. She was beautiful, had a big smile and a warm genuine laugh,” Way wrote.

Her daughter, a mother of two, “desperately wanted to be well.” She had been in detox and rehab, but “there was inadequate aftercare and never a proper diagnosis of her mental health issues, even after she admitted herself to hospital with suicidal thoughts.”

After 72 hours in hospital, she was released, left to her own devices.

A fentanyl-laced Percocet pill later ended her life, right before she was planning to attend college.

“The judicial, medical and mental health systems failed Lindsay,” Way wrote. “Had any of them worked together in her best interests and with a long-term plan, she would have embraced it.”

That’s where the fight for change gets complicated. Remembering and honouring the lives lost is important, but Sieger-Wilson is also hoping for systemic change to deal with the issue on a greater scale.

“There is a system breach somewhere,” she said. “We have to start making changes for them.”

Keeping memories and stories alive is a meaningful way to ensure the issue remains in the spotlight, she said.

“This is putting a story to the names. These people were loved. It’s like the world just went on without them.”

Sieger-Wilson’s passion for raising awareness stems from her experience with friends and acquaintances — more than 30 — who have died over the years. It drove her to organize not only the Orillia Remembers vigil in November 2021, but also, alongside Simcoe Moms for Overdose Awareness, the Orillia Talks event in February 2020 to raise awareness and provide first-hand experiences and professional advice.

The new Facebook page was inspired by one created by Moms Stop the Harm, which also shares stories and photos from across the country, as well as resources and information.

Sieger-Wilson knows the importance of sharing that information publicly, though she wishes it wasn’t necessary.

“I don’t enjoy doing these things, but someone has to do it,” she said.

As she wrote in a post on the Facebook page, she “will continue to be uncomfortable and to make others uncomfortable until everyone starts looking this way.

“No one should be looking away.”

Those who want their loved ones’ stories and photos shared can send a private message through the Facebook page. There is no pressure, Sieger-Wilson stressed.

For those who aren’t comfortable sharing that information, she wanted them to know “they’re not alone in experiencing the losses that they have.”


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Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is the desk editor for Village Media's central Ontario news desk in Simcoe County and Newmarket.
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