After his own addiction-related loss, one man created a tool to help others heal.
Jeremiah Lindemann’s “Celebrating Lost Loved Ones” project is a map of lost lives, a moving collection of crowd-sourced tributes from family and friends to those who have died of drug overdoses.
A digital mapmaker by training, Lindemann understands the geography of grief. More than a decade ago, he lost his kid brother to a drug overdose. Jameson Tanner Lindemann – J.T. to his family and friends – may have been introduced to opioids not by a dealer on the street, but by the well-intentioned dentist who removed his wisdom teeth.
J.T. died Sept. 13, 2007, shortly after finishing his second round of drug rehabilitation. He was 22.
Lindemann, seven years older than J.T., was away pursuing his career as his brother sank deeper into addiction. After J.T.’s death, Lindemann mourned but kept his feelings to himself. He couldn’t shake the stigma associated with drug abuse that might have led others to think of J.T.’s life as squandered in a desperate stew of escapism and dependency.
“It was nothing I wanted to talk about,” Lindemann says.
But as time passed, he became increasingly distressed at the opioid crisis’ mounting death toll, often ensnaring celebrities and other public figures. It became startlingly clear that many of the victims come from good homes and loving families, and that the vortex of addiction was sucking in individuals from every walk of life.
Around three years ago, Lindemann, a geographic information systems engineer for the digital mapmaking firm Esri, decided to tap into his expertise and create a crowd-sourced map to serve as an outlet for the scores of people who were grieving alone, reluctant to share their feelings with others who had experienced similar tragedies.
The goal: to celebrate the lives of those now gone.
Lindemann’s map enables loved ones to post pictures of absent friends and relatives, along with a brief tribute. Alongside the photo gallery is a map that displays where lives were lost, as well as a tally of the death toll in a given community. So far, more than 1,900 people have posted photos and shared stories of loved ones who have died, most of them in the United States, but a few in farther-flung locations such as England, Ireland, South Africa and Australia.
“These deaths are the tip of the iceberg,” Lindemann says. “There are so many more people now that are going through this. There’s got to be hope for them, too.”
Before long, Lindemann found himself overwhelmed by the number of people who regarded him as someone to whom they could pour out their feelings. He wanted to offer comfort, he says, but he didn’t know how. Plus, he had a day job, providing a variety of client support services for Esri.
A reprieve came when the National Safety Council offered to take over hosting the website as part of a comprehensive effort to curb opioid addiction and support those who have suffered losses from it.
“We realized that that in addition to pushing for legislative and policy changes – and changes around prescribing practices – we also needed to connect families so that they know they’re not alone,” council spokeswoman Maureen Vogel says. “That was one of the things that drew us to the map. There are stories behind each one of the data points.”
It is reminiscent, she says, of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a massive folk-art memorial made up of festive, grave-sized panels commemorating those who have died from HIV/AIDS.
Among those with a spot on the opioid map is Salvatore Marchese, 26, whose courtship with drugs began at 13 when he began smoking marijuana.
“We never knew, because he played sports and had friends,” says his mother Patty DiRenzo, of Blackwood, New Jersey. But on the inside, something wasn’t right for Sal. “I guess he was probably medicating himself.”
Soon, DiRenzo says, Sal began taking pills: “When he couldn’t afford the pills, or steal them from us, he tried heroin.”
DiRenzo, a single mother, did everything she could to help her son, who was in and out of rehabilitation programs. In the end, heroin triumphed.
“He had been sober for 90 days,” DiRenzo says. “He probably thought he could use whatever amount he had been using previously, and overdosed.”
Marchese’s last months were a roller coaster of hope and despair. “In June 2010, he was in a very dark place, using very heavily, 20 to 30 bags of heroin a day. He called his sister from a parking lot and said, ‘I’m scared, I’m sick, I can’t live this way anymore,'” DiRenzo says. His sister took Sal to a local emergency room to flush the drugs out of his system. The next day, after a mad scramble to find an available bed, he was admitted into a treatment facility. Seventeen days into the program, he was released.
“He cried,” DiRenzo says, “‘I’m not ready to come home.'”
That summer, Sal got into an intensive outpatient program. He got a job working for a heating, air conditioning and ventilation company. “He started looking like himself again,” DiRenzo says. “His face looked healthy, he was healthy. We had a great summer with him.”
Then, on the night of Sept. 22, Sal didn’t come home. “It was devastating to me,” DiRenzo says. “What happened when he walked out that door? Did he hear a song on the radio? Did he go to Wawa to get coffee and meet someone he knew?
“When the police knocked on my door, I couldn’t believe what had happened,” she says. “They woke me up at 2:30 in the morning. My daughter said, ‘Oh, crap, the police are here.’ We thought he’d been arrested. Now I’d give anything for that news.”
Sal is survived by his mother, sister, longtime girlfriend and a 9-year-old son, also named Sal, who lives with his mother in his grandmother’s house.
Today, DiRenzo consoles herself with the photo and the legend on the “Celebrating Lost Loved Ones” map.
“When I saw Jeremiah’s map, “I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing.’ I can look at the other pictures and know I’m not alone. And Sal wasn’t alone. There are other people going through it,” DiRenzo says. “My son was a beautiful person, and so are all the other people’s children who are struggling with this disease.”
On the map, underneath Sal’s photo, there’s this written reminder of how such tragedies echo through generations:
“Sal gave us one of the most precious gifts that anyone could give, his beautiful son. Baby Sal is a piece of his dad that will continue to shine his light and give his love to everyone around him, for the rest of his life.”
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