On February 23, 2014, Linda Lajterman’s world was shattered when she found her 19 year-old son, Danny, dead in his bedroom. He had overdosed on a drug sold to him by a father in the neighborhood who had been dealing to the local high school students. In the midst of her grief, Linda posted a warning on Facebook, pleading with other parents to resist the “not my son” mentality. The response was overwhelming. She received thousands of messages not only from parents in the U.S., but also from parents in South Africa, Australia, and many countries in Europe and South America. That outpouring encouraged Linda to write, Life After You: What Your Death from Drugs Leaves Behind, a cautionary tale meant to shock and hopefully deter young people from using drugs.
Linda’s story resonates with other parents because they can easily identify with her situation. Linda and her husband, Tito, have been happily married for 31 years. They have two older children, Mike and Andrea, ten and eight years older than Danny, who were very close to their younger brother. The Lajterman home in New Jersey was a gathering place for relatives and friends on holidays and birthdays and Danny always took part in those activities. “We learned the hard way, “ Linda said. “We were hit with a triple whammy: we find our son dead in his room, we learn he was using drugs, and we learned that the drug dealer was the father of three living in the next town over. I hoped to wake everyone up so this doesn’t happen to anyone else. The pain, the shock, the trauma was horrible. If it could happen to Danny, it could very easily happen to other kids.”
In a “Note to Parents” at the beginning of the book, Linda advises adults “to place this book in the hands of a young adolescent, teen, or young adult who needs to confront the cold, hard facts of drug abuse.” Linda’s book is not a drug encyclopedia; she does not list the various substances, what they look like, or their effects. Rather, she takes a young person through the aftermath of death, including what happens to the family left behind. As she states in the book: “It’s not a pretty picture.”
Already Linda’s message is being hailed by drug abuse professionals who believe her book could serve as a much needed wake up call for both parents and their children. “Finally, someone has tried to take the bull by the horns and gone on the offensive against the addiction epidemic,” said David Ray, Co-Founder of Cross Keys Retreat. “I would encourage each parent to read this first and then encourage each of their children to do the same.” Psychologist Gregory G. Lomuti noted: “Life After You challenges the decision-making process of at-risk drug users by having them think and feel-out a myriad of emotional and factual consequences of death. The human spirit’s drive for compassion is captured in her plea — let not another loved one die nor family suffer.”
Although Linda is a nurse, she is not an expert on substance abuse. Unfortunately, she has now become an expert on what happens when a family member dies of a drug overdose. Writing Life After You just two months after Danny’s death was her way of coping with tremendous loss. Her mission now is to prevent other families from experiencing that pain.
Only two months into 2014, Danny was the eighth teen to die from a drug overdose in New Jersey’s Bergen County. Like Vermont, Arizona, and several other states, New Jersey is battling a drug epidemic, particularly with heroin. According to officials, so far this year, 48 people from Bergen County and 20 in neighboring Passaic County died from heroin overdoses. Linda takes each death like a punch to the gut, reliving Danny’s death and upset that little is being done to turn the tide. And after she posted her letter on Facebook, she learned that the drug abuse epidemic is worldwide. “I never expected this letter to reach so many states in the U.S. and countries all over the world – South Africa, Dubai, Israel, Canada, Singapore, Greece, Italy, Australia, London, Spain, Argentina, Brazil,” she said. “People sent me hugs and prayers which I truly felt and helped me get through the early months.”
More than once, Linda heard from parents who worried their kids were going to die. Others told about teens stealing jewelry, electronics, and family heirlooms to buy drugs. “This has got to stop,” she said. “Whatever they are being taught in school and drug education awareness classes is NOT WORKING. Things are getting worse.”
Daniel Marcel Lajterman
While Linda never suspected Danny was using drugs, she still warned him, as she had with Mike and Andrea, about the dangers. Those talks usually focused on alcohol and marijuana, never on painkillers or harder drugs like heroin. “We were unaware of the opiate addiction problem of today and that it had been going on for a few years,” Linda said. Typically, people become addicted to painkillers like Vicodin or Oxycodone, often after being legally prescribed these medications by a physician. When prescriptions run out, buying pills illegally from dealers is very expensive, with one pill costing as much as $80. Heroin, which deals the same high, can be bought for much less, but is highly addictive. And buying the drug on the street, often from dealers who just want to make a quick buck, means the user is never sure what the dealer has included in the mixture. That’s what happened to Danny. Rather than heroin, he ingested a homemade mixture that included Fentanyl, a pain killer that can be 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times more potent than heroin.
Like so many young people using drugs, Danny was able to hide his drug use from his family. “There were no signs that Danny was doing anything different,” said Linda. “We kept the discussions going about crossing the line, but really did not know what to look for. I did ask his guidance counselor what to look for and after the discussions, found no reason to think my son was using drugs.”
Linda admitted that she and her husband underestimated the dangers. “I will 100% admit that I was not equipped to raise a teenager in today’s society,” Linda said. “I am 56 years old, I was not in tune to what is going on and thought because I had already raised two teens, things were the same.” Technology and social media, however, have dramatically changed the landscape. Danny’s drug dealer used an app called Wickr that made each order disappear once placed. So even if Linda had been tracking Danny’s social media activity, she would not have discovered he was buying drugs.
Linda’s anger, towards Danny and other teens who use drugs, fueled her desire to write Life After You. “I was angry at Danny and angry at every kid who thinks it’s fun to get high with whatever their substance of choice may be,” she said. “I saw Instagram photos of the after party of the high school prom; girls drunk out of their minds, urinating in sinks in restaurants, breaking the sinks off the walls and laughing in their underwear in a restaurant as though this was the funniest thing ever and taking photos to share with friends. One girl posted she threw up so hard her nose bled.”
Linda has difficulty reconciling the difference between the son she knew and the way he died. Danny was the son so many other parents wished they had. “Danny was the most social of all three of my children,” Linda said. “He was quick witted and had a lot of friends. He was never shy to talk to adults.” After graduating from high school, Danny decided to attend community college, waiting for his girlfriend, Colleen, to finish high school. Their plan was to attend college together, possibly in Florida. “I knew in my heart that he would marry Colleen,” Linda said. “They were young, but I could see this relationship withstanding time.”
The entire family has been devastated by Danny’s death. Danny was named for his uncle Marcel, a member of the Marshall University football team who died when the team’s plane crashed in 1970. Marcel was also 19 when he died. “No family should ever have to experienced the loss of a young person twice,” Linda said.
While some families are torn apart after a violent death, Linda’s family has remained united. “The second night after Danny passed, my husband and I went out for a drive after the house emptied out,” Linda said. “We made a pact to stay strong together and that there will not be any finger pointing or blame. We are very much aware how a tragedy like this could rip families apart. Each one of us has our own feelings to deal with on so many levels. We invited and encouraged our other children to join us in this pact so we can stay together. The bond between our family has grown stronger since his passing. Colleen, Danny’s girlfriend, has become part of our family. She spends a great deal of time with us. We all share a common bond; the painful loss of Danny.”
Linda knows that the upcoming holidays will be tough. “Thanksgiving was Danny’s favorite and it was the holiday I hosted at our house,” she said. “This year we plan to remain at home, just my immediate family, no turkey dinner, no traditional foods. I can’t go into the stores until Christmas is over. Seeing Christmas breaks my heart for my son. He was so young and he will never have Christmas again.”
Linda’s hope is that her book will sound the alarm for other families who may not understand the seriousness of the current drug epidemic. “Even if only a small percentage of readers are touched by what I have to say, this book will be worth the effort.”
Life After You
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