A solitary Christmas tree standing in front of the Blount County Justice Center on East Lamar Alexander Parkway in Maryville has a twofold purpose: to allow people to honor the memory of loved ones who lost their lives to overdose and to bring awareness to drug addiction, a disease that can strike anyone, any time, and lead to overdose.

On Saturday, Nov. 27, anyone who wishes to place an ornament on the tree in memory of a family member or friend who has passed away due to overdose is invited to attend a short ceremony beginning at 10 a.m. Those without ornaments will have an opportunity to write their loved one’s name on a star provided by event organizers to place on the tree.

This is the third year for the memorial tree, hosted by Blount County Sheriff James Berrong. Jan McCoy, who organizes the event with Tim Webb, said the tree features the colors silver and purple — purple being the official color of Aug. 31’s International Overdose Awareness Day. The memorial tree gives grieving family and friends a chance to remember their loved ones without stigma, without judgment, and in a meaningful way with others who have faced the same loss and understand the pain.

More than addicts

The deceased loved ones are more than addicts who lost their lives to overdose. They are sons, daughters, parents, husbands, wives, siblings, dear friends.

“A lot of times people look at our children as lowlifes,” said McCoy, whose son, Dane, died by overdose in 2014 after first becoming addicted to pain medication and going on to harder drugs, while Webb’s daughter, Brooke, lost her life in 2018. “We want to remember them when they were healthy and vibrant. They were not always addicts. They were people with great potential until drugs got hold of them.”

Ornaments placed on the tree can be anything that reminds the contributor of their loved one. McCoy will place an ornament with a football in memory of Dane, a football standout at Maryville High School.

“People can bring whatever they want,” she said. The tree, which was donated by Home Depot, will remain up through Christmas. She will save each ornament, and if you’d like to have yours returned, call her to set up a time for pickup.

Those not emotionally able to attend the ceremony may ask someone else to place the ornament on the tree for them. Ornaments can be added at any time before Christmas, not just Saturday. “We want anybody and everybody to feel included,” McCoy said.

No middle ground

Webb said he met McCoy after the death of his daughter. “We tried to figure out some way to do some kind of memorial for them, and we spoke with Sheriff Berrong about it. I said, ‘Why don’t we do some kind of a Christmas tree?’ Sheriff Berrong said, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and we ran with it.”

The memorial tree is a tangible way to make sure the loved one is not forgotten.

“There have been a lot of tears shed,” Webb said. “Nothing will replace having the child back, but this is a way that we can honor the memory of those we have lost. We can’t have them with us for the holidays, but we can have their memory. We can also show people struggling with addiction or parents that have children struggling with addiction that they are not forgotten.”

He and McCoy often are asked to meet with parents who are facing this battle. “We know the pain,” Webb said. “We know what it’s like to lose a child.”

Like McCoy’s son, Webb’s daughter first became addicted to pain medication before trying harder drugs. “That’s the biggest thing we’ve run into —accidental addiction,” Webb said. “Nobody wakes up in the morning saying, ‘I think I’m going to become an addict today.’ Every single one has an underlying story. …

“We do this memorial tree to honor their memory, to let others know if it can happen to my child, it can happen to anybody,” he said. “Anybody can become an addict. Drugs are no respecter of person, they will take anybody. They don’t play fair — they play to the death.

“There’s only two ways out of addiction. You either admit you have a problem and get help, or you die. There’s no middle ground.”

Webb has written a book, “See It from My Side: A Father’s Loss of His Daughter in the Opioid Crisis and the Dawn of Recovery,” recounting his experience. It’s available on Amazon.

Ongoing battle

“All Jan and I want to do is help,” Webb said. “We want to bring awareness to the situation, bring awareness to the fact that overdose and addiction are not getting any better. There’s going to be a lot more people losing their children unless we stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something.’”

Fighting the opioid epidemic is an ongoing battle, McCoy said. “COVID and being isolated haven’t helped. … Ryan Rogers with the Fifth Judicial Drug Task Force said we have had 52 fatal overdoses so far this year. It’s so sad.

“I don’t know if there will ever be a cure, but we will keep fighting.”

Contact Linda Braden Albert with story ideas at LindasInkyfingers@comcast.net.

Life columnist

Linda Braden Albert worked as a feature writer and editor at The Daily Times. She is now the editor of Horizon Magazine and a columnist.

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