A Letter on Losing My Brother to Overdose and Addiction

Amber Ginter

iBelieve Contributing Writer
Updated Feb 15, 2024
A Letter on Losing My Brother to Overdose and Addiction

Even addicts need love. So tell them you’re there. You see them struggling and want to help. You love them. You’re here.

My brother died of an overdose today. February 13th, 2024, sometime around 3:00 a.m. A phone call woke me at 4:38, just before the sun began to creep through the clouds, breaking forth light on a dreary winter morning. But nothing about nature's routine brought joy; it brought forth mourning, reminding me I still had to live. 

I made it to work on time, despite feeling dead inside. Grief is a funny thing. Unexpected for one. Heartbreaking when we allow it to be. Numbing when we avoid it or turn it off for too long. There are so many thoughts and emotions running through my brain. 

It's my fault. I could've done more. I should've loved him better. I could've saved him. It's my fault if he's in hell. I wish I had told him I loved him. I wish I wouldn't have waited to try and heal our relationship. I wish I would've had just a little more time. I wish I would've forgiven more fully. Embraced deeper. Been more like Jesus to him. 

A Thief Called Addiction

My mom, aunt, and grandma keep telling me it's not my fault. Ryan was a grown man who made his own choices and no one could've saved him. The addiction was too strong. Yet, in the back of my mind, I can't help but think what if I'd done more? What if I'd been a better testimony? Risked my life and safety to try and save his?

A billion memories pierce my focus. Every moment we ever shared—good and bad—now pierced by death. I wonder if he saw it coming. Did he know he wouldn't make it? Was he ready to die? 

He’d made it a week and one day out of rehab after a year-long intensive program. Therapists and counselors say those first 4-8 weeks out of a program are crucial for lifetime recovery. Especially those recovering from substance abuse. Those with alcohol can often go back to the grind, other users can’t take the same hit. It’s too powerful and usually kills them.

Though we never had a close relationship, I wasn't ready for him to leave. Though I didn't see him often, he was always close to my heart. Though he was addicted to drugs, I knew a small part of him wanted to be free. Everyone has a reason for their addiction. A coping mechanism of sorts. But I wish I knew why he’d stumbled into his. How I could've helped him. How I could help others.

Life Is Precious

Things were complicated. I loved my half-brother, and I still do. But after dozens of life-or-death circumstances, I made the difficult decision to not be around him. Not because I didn't want to be, but because I needed to protect myself. I loved him from a distance. I hope and pray he knew that.

Growing up, I'd seen my siblings die and come back to life numerous times. I'll never forget the time I first saw Ryan overdose. He'd died in my parent's garage with a fresh needle sticking out of his arm. That time, we made it to him in time. We jammed Narcan into his arm and God brought him back to life. But when he woke up, he was in a fury. When he started running, my Dad told me to tackle him. He was avoiding the cops and time in jail. After he was finally caught, I was thankful he served time because I wanted him alive. I wanted him in a place where drugs weren't as easily accessible (though I know and realize the brokenness of our current prison systems). 

But at 4:38 this morning, when I received the call, Ryan's nine lives had run out. He wasn't given one more chance. One bad hit of drugs, and it was all over. By the time his mom found him, his lips were blue. It was too late. He was gone. I'm still grappling with the fact that he's not coming back. He isn't a cat with nine lives and second chances. My mom always said she knew the chances would eventually run out. I didn't think it would be so soon. 

Over the years, I'd also seen my siblings express signs of being physically and verbally abusive. This made it feel like it was impossible to restore any type of relationship with them. I wanted to do what Jesus said and turn the other cheek, but how do you love those who have put your life at risk? How do you heal the relationship when it requires a two-way street, waiting on a shut door to safely open? I never figured it out. I loved him the best I knew how. Though I wish I had loved Ryan more while he was still here. 

For a while, we lived under the same roof—a few times during my teens and twenties. I'm ashamed to say that I stayed out of the way. I avoided him. I cast my gaze downward and never said more than a quick "hi," or "hello." Trauma is an awful poison. Wrapped in a beautifully deceitful bow. A quick tie that makes you think the longer you avoid it the easier it will heal. The opposite can be said as truth. Undealt with trauma is like an unclean wound. The more it's contained, the more it festers and grows. In the end, the mess has grown. The wounds have festered. All we end up with is regret.

Plea for Love

Friends, this is a raw expression of my jumbled heart and emotions. I'm grieving and don't know how to process it. Something about writing brings balm to my soul. I know the Lord is with us, and I can only pray that someone gets saved through my brother's death. Because nothing is beautiful about death and grief. Yet somehow I know what the enemy meant for evil, my God can somehow turn for good. Even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.

I wish I would've gotten to say goodbye. I don't know what I would've said. But I know it would've started with love. How can I help? How can I pray for you?
To those of you reading this that are struggling with addiction, this is my plea to you: Don't be ashamed to get help. Don't wait. You are worth it. You are loved. To those of you reading who know someone who's struggling with addiction, please don't wait to tell them that you care. Know that while addiction can be an initial choice, it’s not that easy to just stop. It’s called an addiction for a reason. Even addicts need love. So tell them you’re there. You see them struggling and want to help. You love them. You’re here.

I wish I had all the answers for ending substance abuse addiction, but I don't. I don't know where to begin or even what to think. The drug epidemic in the United States is staggering and growing. I know my family isn't alone.
I'm not asking you to place yourself in danger at the expense of those you love. But I am asking you to love them. Pray for them. Share Jesus with them. Never give up hope. Never give up on them.

As Toby Mac wrote in his song, 21 Years, after his son Truett’s overdose:

"Why would You give and then take him away?
Suddenly end, could You not let it fade?
What I would give for a couple o' days (couple o' days)
A couple o' days
Is it just across the Jordan
Or a city in the stars?
Are ya singin' with the angels?
Are you happy where you are?
Well, until this show is over
And you've run into my arms
God has you in Heaven
But I have you in my heart
I have you in my heart." 

I have you in my heart, Ryan. In the grieving now, and when it’s over. I pray this story will change others' lives. I pray in painfully losing yours, we can save others before it’s too late.

Agape, Amber

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Darwin Brandis

amber ginter headshotAmber Ginter is a teacher-turned-author who loves Jesus, her husband Ben, and granola. Growing up Amber looked for faith and mental health resources and found none. Today, she offers hope for young Christians struggling with mental illness that goes beyond simply reading your Bible and praying more. Because you can love Jesus and still suffer from anxiety. You can download her top faith and mental health resources for free to help navigate books, podcasts, videos, and influencers from a faith lens perspective. Visit her website at amberginter.com.