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What My Dad Taught Me about Grief, Art and What Makes a Life

He died of an accidental drug overdose. It changed how I perceive the world.

Jackie Dives 22 Apr 2024The Tyee

Jackie Dives is a documentary photographer based in Vancouver. Her clients include the New York Times, Time magazine, the Globe and Mail, the Guardian and others.

In October 2017, the day after I found out my dad had died from an accidental drug overdose, I picked up my camera and loaded it with a roll of film. Photography is how I make a living and it’s also how I process my experience of the world.

In the immediate days after my dad died, I often felt the weight of dissonant, opposing emotions. Our relationship was complex and thus created polarizing memories that can bring a smile to my face or overwhelm me with sadness. Creating double exposures was a way for me to express the contradicting and fraught emotions I was experiencing.

A double-exposure image of a grey building on a bright day with a black sign and white text that reads 'Murray Hotel.'
The downtown SRO where the author’s father spent his final days. Photo by Jackie Dives.
A double-exposure image depicts, on the left, a row of jackets including a burgundy baseball jacket, and, on the right, a white coffee mug with the word 'Vancouver' and black and white photos of the city on it. The mug sits on a table of assorted items including a pillbox, a cigarette and a pink lighter.
Inside the author’s father’s room in the Murray Hotel, an SRO in downtown Vancouver. Photo by Jackie Dives.

I first photographed the room where he died, in the single-room occupancy hotel downtown where he had recently moved after 20 years of living in an apartment in Marpole. I hadn’t seen him in about a year and had never been in this room before, but his best friend later told me that the new surroundings were stressful for him; it’s been well documented that the living conditions in Vancouver’s downtown SROs are often hard on their residents who are living vulnerably.

A double-exposure image depicts, on the left, a small black television with a white lamp perched atop it. Onscreen, a woman in a black suit is being interviewed by a man in a black suit. On the right are coffee containers, a transparent glass lamp and clothes hangers.
Photo by Jackie Dives.

When I walked in, I noticed that both the TV and the radio were on, which was typical of my dad. Aside from an overflowing ashtray, the room was tidy. His baseball caps were hung in a row on nails on the wall; his clothes were carefully organized on hangers in a makeshift closet he’d created by fastening rope along the back of the room; food was in Tupperware containers to prevent mice from getting to it.

There was one small window in the corner of the room that was facing another building, so almost no natural light came in. There was no bed, only a sleeping bag on the floor, a detail that still brings tears to my eyes. My dad had a bad back throughout my childhood, and the pain he endured constantly was one of the reasons why he struggled so much. I later found a government letter in his room that denied his request for them to provide him with a bed.

A double-exposure image depicts a row of ball caps arranged horizontally against a white wall with various logos on them, plus, on the right, a neon green plastic Frisbee.
Photo by Jackie Dives.

In the following days I began to visit places that reminded me of him. I would get on my bike and ride over to the housing co-op where I’d lived as a kid, to the swimming pool we went to, and to his old apartment and the parking garage there, which was the last place I saw him alive.

My dad taught me how to garden. He dug up a patch of grass behind his apartment building and we dropped pumpkin seeds in a row and pressed rhubarb into the earth. He taught me about composting. We raked leaves that became dirt over the winter. He climbed a tall rickety ladder to reach the cherries at the top of a neighbourhood tree and we baked a cherry pie from scratch. I was always welcome in his garage, which was full of tools, and we made a go-cart and a jewelry box from the wood lying around. He threw spaghetti on the ceiling to see if it was ready.

A double-exposure photograph depicts, on the left, a small white house, and, on the right, a grey three-storey walk-up apartment building, both on sunny days.
In the days after he died, Jackie Dives visited the apartments her dad lived in when she was a child. This photograph is a double exposure of the apartment he lived in, and the apartment his girlfriend lived in, which was across the street. Photo by Jackie Dives.

But he also never paid child support. And as a kid I learned that it wasn’t safe to get in a car with him even when he said he hadn’t been drinking, because more often than not, he was lying.

I stopped visiting him at home. Instead, we would meet for sushi dinners, but he would still drink too much even though I asked him not to. Eventually I switched our ritual to breakfasts, but he’d be drunk when he arrived at 9 a.m.

I got a job when I was 15 and bought a car with my earnings. When my dad took me to buy insurance for the car, the woman at the counter asked for my driver’s licence.

“Oh, I don’t have one yet,” I replied.

My dad piped up, defensively asking, “Does someone need a driver’s licence to purchase a car?”

The woman, caught off guard, said, “I’ve never sold car insurance to someone too young to drive, but I guess there’s no rule against it.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my dad was beaming. He was so proud of me.

Even though his own licence had been revoked, my dad taught me how to drive in that car, and how to change the brakes and check the oil.

A double-exposure image depicts a brown horse’s face laid across an open highway on a sunny day.
Photo by Jackie Dives.

After graduating high school, I worked 60 hours a week for a year while living on the floor of my friend’s bedroom and saved enough money to go to Europe. While I was gone, my dad drove my little car without a licence and crashed it.

I was learning that for my dad, alcohol came first, and we grew apart.

A three-panel image depicts, from left, a bush covered in a white sheet, a patch of blossoming yellow flowers against green leaves, and a pole overgrown with ivy above a dense tall row of shrubbery against a blue sky.
Photo by Jackie Dives.

I continued to make photographs, repeatedly returning to the same places. Walking slowly through the neighbourhoods I grew up in, I found myself compelled to capture things that looked overgrown, neglected, forgotten. But I saw freedom in these things, too, a lack of inhibition that my dad embodied throughout his life. As my thoughts became more clear, so did the photographs. I slowly transitioned from busy double exposures to quiet medium-format landscapes.

I started to contemplate the fact that my dad dying from a drug overdose made me feel like the positive memories I had of him were in jeopardy and that I had to protect them somehow.

Because my dad’s death is entrenched in stigma that perpetuates the idea that someone who uses drugs is less worthy of life, and therefore less worthy of remembering, I felt like I had to stand up for him and explain that he was more than his drug use. I had to justify his goodness and continually go out on a controversial limb for a drug user, instead of simply mourning the loss of my father.

He was one of 1,495 people who died of an illicit drug overdose in B.C. in 2017. He died in October, a year and a half after the provincial health officer declared illicit drug overdose deaths a public health emergency on April 14, 2016. In the years since, that number has increased exponentially. Last year, a record-breaking 2,546 people died from unregulated drug deaths, making it the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 59.

But according to leaders in public health, drug policy and harm reduction, “these deaths are largely preventable.” In November 2023, the BC Coroners Service convened a death review panel to examine illicit drug toxicity deaths. The 23-person panel, composed of experts in the field including doctors, coroners, substance use specialists and researchers, reported, “Any response to addressing the magnitude and severity of the emergency will experience challenges but the current system of prohibition is failing badly, and the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

The panel acknowledged that “the primary driver of the drug crisis is the inherently toxic and volatile nature of the unregulated drug supply.” Their urgent recommendation for reducing these deaths is the “pursuit of a non-medical model that provides people who use drugs with an alternative to the unregulated drug market.”

The now-defunct Drug User Liberation Front was a successful grassroots model for preventing overdoses through its distribution of safer, tested drugs.

Instead of implementing these recommendations, and scaling up the DULF model, the provincial government continues to fall short on making meaningful progress. This should be a non-partisan issue. But it’s stigma — against drug use, against being poor — that prevents these science-based solutions from moving forward.

A pair of abandoned brown shoes stand in the long green grass growing next to a curving piece of grey sidewalk.
Photo by Jackie Dives.

I wondered if other people who had had a family member die from an overdose might feel similarly, and was eager to connect with and witness other people’s experience of this, so I started making a series of portraits of people who had had a family member die from overdose. I asked them to choose a place to be photographed where they felt close to their loved one.

For these images I used a simple but slow square-format camera called a Hasselblad as a way to honour the strength and courage it takes to talk about this unique form of grief, known as “disenfranchised grief.” This kind of grief is defined by losses that don’t fit into more widely accepted mainstream narratives about death, may be stigmatized and therefore may be more difficult to publicly acknowledge and mourn.

A man with grey hair and glasses on his head sits in a wooden chair in a darkened indoor residential space. His light skin is tanned and he is wearing a blue T-shirt, a blue striped button-down shirt and a dark blue vest.
After presiding over many funerals of people who had died from a drug overdose, Rev. Barry Morris lost his own son Eli to a drug overdose in early 2020. Photo by Jackie Dives.
A young woman with light skin and long, wavy, light brown hair stands on a beach in a pink and grey striped sweater and jeans, looking down. Behind her is the ocean, ships and Vancouver’s mountains in the background. The sky and water are blue.
Kayla Cohen’s younger brother died of an accidental drug overdose at 25 years old. He was about to start his final year of law school. His family was unaware he was using drugs at the time of his death, so it came as a complete shock to them. Photo by Jackie Dives.
A young woman with light skin and brown hair lies on her stomach in the green grass inside a black cage for pets. She is wearing a black tank top. Next to her is a small grey rabbit.
When Lauren Radu’s brother Morgan died from an accidental drug overdose in 2020, she got her bunny Milo to help her cope. Morgan would have turned 27 a few days after this photograph was taken. Photo by Jackie Dives.
A young man with light skin and short blond hair sits on the ground against a wooden fence, refracted sun on his face. He is wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans with white Nike sneakers.
Wolf Hannah’s father died of a drug overdose in 2009. His dad loved the Velvet Underground and Hannah wishes they could still talk about music and that he could ask him what he thinks about the band the Weeknd. Photo by Jackie Dives.
A woman with light skin and short brown hair looks towards the camera. She is holding a baby. A man with light skin, a ball cap and beard wraps his arms around them. In the background is the ocean reflecting a grey-blue sky.
Stephanie Harrington, right, found her brother Ian’s body when she was 17 weeks pregnant. Her baby, Soren, was given the middle name Ian, after his late uncle. Ian was an active member at his local gym, where he helped younger people train in boxing and mixed martial arts. He was seeking treatment with a drug counsellor and working on his recovery, but when COVID-19 hit he felt isolated from his community and struggled with depression. Photo by Jackie Dives.
A green traffic pole bears black street signs with white text that read 'Victoria Drive' and 'East 32nd Avenue.' At the bottom of the pole leans a mirror against which the reflection of Jackie Dives can be seen; she is wearing a dark jacket, looking down and holding a camera against her chest. Behind the pole are rows of Vancouver Special and other houses on a residential block with parked cars on the side of the road. The sky is grey.
The best memories I have of my dad are from when he lived in an apartment at this intersection. I would visit on the weekends and we would watch The X Files, make cherry pies from scratch and tinker around in his garage. Self-portrait by Jackie Dives.

Perhaps the best thing I inherited from my dad was his tendency to want to stick it to the man, which he did with absolute conviction. The last time I photographed him alive, he was excited to show me a crazy jimmy-rigged electric bike he had made for himself by attaching some sort of found motor to a regular bicycle.

At the time, I wasn’t exactly new to photography, but it had been less than a year of me trying, in earnest, to figure out how to make good portraits, and I hadn’t gotten the hang of it yet. My biggest Achilles heel as a photographer is that I feel like a burden to the people I am photographing. Even though my dad was open to me photographing him that day, I could tell that being in front of the camera in such an intentional way was awkward for him, so I made only a few frames and they are not very good. Over the past seven years since his death, I haven’t necessarily been able to overcome feeling like a burden when I’m photographing, but I have developed techniques to make the process smoother for everyone involved.

People have told me that participating in my portrait series has been an important part of their grieving process. But the people I photograph for my ongoing work about the toxic drug supply crisis are actually giving me the meaningful gift of being able to continue to work through my own grief. The practice of photography has been a way for me to reconnect with my dad and remember him in his complexity instead of just his faults.

My dad was one of a kind. He was a cat lover, a mechanic, a carpenter, a goof, a friend, a caretaker, and also a drug user.  [Tyee]

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