What Are Fentapills? A Father Grieves Son’s Death From Fentanyl Overdose

I IDENTIFY AS a dad. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. As the eldest of five, I was enlisted to babysit my little brothers and baby sister before I turned 10 years old. Even as my peers found their passions, picked their majors, and pursued their dream jobs, I was focused on the white picket fence. Money and career were merely distractions from my goals: kids and family.

And I got them. I married my best friend and we had three children: Eddie, Teresa, and Charlie. I was active and engaged in my kids’ lives as a coach, scout leader, homework partner, and friend (I like to think). All three kids were well-adjusted and well-liked by their peers. They went to college, found partners, and got jobs. Everything was going according to plan. Then it all blew up.

In May 2020, our youngest son, Charlie, died at age 22 after taking a counterfeit pill made of fentanyl. Charlie went online intending to buy a Percocet to help with lingering pain he had from a recent back surgery. He had a telephone job interview at 5 p.m., and likely didn’t want the pain to affect his performance. I talked to Charlie about the dangers of opioid addictions following his surgery, so there were no suspicions that he had an addiction, nor was he a regular user. Still, the prevalance of these off-script pharmaceuticals made them easy for him to access. Charlie took the pill, played video games in his room, and died quietly in his bed three weeks before his college graduation, in a house full of roommates who assumed he was napping.


preview for Men's Health US Section - All Sections & Videos

Charlie loved being with people, and people loved being with him. His friends say he was the “glue” of their group because he could bring all different kinds of people together. He was easygoing, and he cared more about others than he did about himself. He loved to make people smile and had a belly laugh that would make everyone’s day better. He loved movies, sharing his critical insights about directors, casting choices, and plot arcs. The films Seven and Unforgiven were at the top of his list.

Music was another passion. He was a big fan of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, and Tom Petty (he got that last one from my wife Mary and I). He was a leader in his fraternity at Santa Clara University, and loved organizing events. He was a high-achiever and very bright. Like other young people, he was unsure of his future and tried to figure out his place in the world after college. That day, unfortunately, will never come.

song for charlie

Ed and Charlie together at a Cotillion dinner in winter 2016 during Charlie’s freshman year of college.

Courtesy Ed Ternan

Charlie’s story is one of many that illustrates the challenges young people face today. Youth deaths from drugs and suicides are at record levels as our kids grow up with fewer boundaries around substances, too many options to self-medicate, and intense pressure to fix the world’s problems. The internet and social media push information at them faster than their developing brains can process. Their stress and anxiety are off the charts.

This environment presents new challenges for fathers. I had the same “drug talk” with Charlie that my parents had with me, and that I also had with Charlie’s siblings. What I didn’t know is how quickly and dramatically the drug landscape had changed in just a few short years. I was vaguely aware that teens and young adults might take a Xanax to chill out, but that didn’t seem like something to fear. I mean, we see it all the time on TV—adults laughing about needing a Xanax after a long day. But I didn’t know about fake pills.

Seeking relief or escape, some kids, like Charlie, turn to familiar prescription medications like Oxy, Percocet, and Xanax. They get them online or from friends. But a lot of them are fake. Drug traffickers have flooded the U.S. with hundreds of millions of counterfeit pills made with the potent (and therefore profitable) opioid, fentanyl. Pressed in makeshift labs, these “fentapills” are unevenly dosed and potentially deadly. The widespread availability of counterfeit prescription pills coupled with how lethal fentanyl can be means that we are living in a whole new era for drugs. And kids, like Charlie, are dying.

“The widespread availability of counterfeit prescription pills coupled with how lethal fentanyl can be for people without opioid tolerance means that we are operating in a whole new era for drugs.”

The loss of Charlie in this way leads me to doubt my life decisions and question my choices as a father. What did I miss? What did I get wrong? Could I have prevented this tragedy? As I wrestle with these questions, I have learned a lot about youth mental health, the new drug landscape, and the grieving process. In the wake of Charlie’s death, Mary and I quit our jobs and started Song for Charlie, a nonprofit dedicated to educating parents, young adults, and teens about fentapills and the dangers that come with self-medication.

This work gives me an opportunity to help other parents and fathers learn from my mistakes and avoid the tragedy I have experienced. In the years following Charlie’s passing, here’s what I’ve learned and what I wish I did better:

  • Kids want dialogue, not a lecture. Many of us received a strong-handed monologue from a teacher or parent that made taking drugs a black-and-white issue—either you were good and didn’t take drugs, or you were bad and did. This “New Drug Talk,” as we refer to it at Song for Charlie, treats fentanyl as a little more complicated. We encourage a discussion, where parents ask questions and come open-minded to learn how and why kids today are seeking out pills.
  • Listening can be the first step to forging a strong bond. Our kids are dealing with new pressures we couldn’t imagine growing up. Asking them about what they’re dealing with, and what they’ve heard about this new problem, can be a great way to start an open discussion about fentapills. Acknowledging their stress and anxiety while also expressing concern for their safety can go a long way for building trust. Emphasize that there are no real prescription pills on any social media platform, and there is no such thing as a pill that has been “tested” for fentanyl. The only safe pills are from their doctor. Empower them to be part of the solution by telling their friends.
  • What you say and how you say it matters. Looking back at the conversations I had with Charlie, I wish I had been more mindful of my tone. I tended to just cut to the chase. I know now that empathy and patience are more effective communication strategies. Our kids need time and space to get comfortable and share. Creating that environment is the best way to connect.
  • How adults act matter too. I wish my kids had seen me going for a run after work, instead of reaching for a beer. I sometimes wonder how many of my bad habits my kids had to unlearn on their way to adulthood.
  • Be a P.I.G. (present, interested, generous) with time. If I could start again, I would make it a priority to be in the moment with Charlie and my other children. I wish I had been more attentive to the little things. Played catch for 15 more minutes. Agreed to a hand of cards even though I was exhausted from a long day. Read that story one more time, even though it was past my bedtime. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been that hard. It takes focus to block out our noisy lives and be fully present, and Charlie’s death made it clear that being in the moment with my family is so worth the effort.

These musings may sound like the regrets of a sad old man, and that’s exactly what they are. Regret is part of grief, especially as it relates to a tragic, out-of-order death like the loss of a child to drugs. Even if I had been a perfect dad, Charlie might have made the same poor choice to take a street pill and died. But I can’t shake the feeling that I came up short somehow, and Charlie’s death forces me to confront my choices and their consequences.

My favorite story about Charlie comes from his days in grammar school. Mary and I got a call from the mother of one of Charlie’s second-grade classmates who, tearfully and thankfully, said that Charlie had stepped in to protect her son from a bully. Her son, Tommy, was the smallest kid in the class and Charlie was the biggest. But Charlie didn’t confront the bully with strength or intimidation. Instead, he stepped in front of him and calmy told him that he was hurting Tommy’s feelings and that was not nice. He reminded him that “we should all be friends.”

Friends. Mary and I had dinner recently with a few of Charlie’s friends. They are 25 years old now, a few years into budding careers and serious relationships—well past their knucklehead college frat boy days. It was a bittersweet evening, knowing that Charlie didn’t make it past his days of angst and uncertainty. That he won’t take his place in the world alongside his friends.

It’s my hope that one day “No Random Pills,” the phrase we use at Song for Charlie to shift how young people think about experimenting with drugs, will be as deeply ingrained into our children as “Look Both Ways.” In the meantime, we as fathers and parents must know the landscape our children are navigating so we can help them avoid the extreme risks they face. These days, our support and guidance can be the difference between life and death.

Headshot of Ed Ternan

Ed Ternan is the president of Song for Charlie, a nonprofit that creates educational information about illicit fentanyl in fake pills and other drugs for kids, families, and schools. Their new online resource hub for parents and caregivers, “The New Drug Talk: Connect to Protect,” launches in August 2023.

This article was originally posted here.

Comments are closed.