Ursula: Turning soul-crushing grief over fentanyl into fuel for change

May 15, 2023, 4:47 PM


Trygve (right), died of a fentanyl overdose on December 29th, 2019. (Courtesy of Gen Pehlivanian)

(Courtesy of Gen Pehlivanian)

It’s hard to imagine a pain that cuts deeper than losing a child. It’s the ultimate tragedy. You never get over the heartbreak. You just learn how to deal with it better over time. That’s why I have such tremendous respect for parents, like Gen Pehlivanian of Mukilteo, who turned their soul-crushing grief into fuel for change.

Pehlivanian’s son, Trygve, died of a fentanyl overdose on Dec. 29, 2019. He was only 20 years old and had been suffering from inflamed tonsils. He was given antibiotics, steroids, and pain medications after his first two doctor’s visits. But after his throat swelled again, he went to an urgent clinic and, this time, was only prescribed antibiotics.

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“He was one of those kids who would be too embarrassed to ask the doctor for some pain medication,” Pehlivanian told us on The Gee & Ursula Show. “It was easier for him to go to a dealer that he knew and bought what he thought was Percocet.”

That one pill killed him instantly. The medical examiner said he died from an acute fentanyl overdose.

Along with the overwhelming grief of losing her firstborn, Pehlivanian was also dealing with the shock of how he died.

“My first reaction was, my kid doesn’t do drugs! What do you mean an overdose? I was so embarrassed … I was saying, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to tell people?'”

But then, as she started looking into fentanyl, she learned that Trygve was far from alone. Fentanyl overdoses are a leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the United States and in Washington state, growing most quickly among 18 to 24 year olds.

In the three and a half years since her son died, Pehlivanian has been working tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of this synthetic opioid. She has shared his story in health classes at Kamiak High School, where Trygve and her other children attended. Some students in the school’s media class are creating a short documentary featuring Pehlavanian and three other mothers who’ve lost children to fentanyl overdoses. The video will be shown at a fentanyl awareness event hosted by the mayor of Mukilteo on May 23. This summer, she and the other moms will also host booths at county fairs around the state.

When she first started her advocacy, drug experts estimated that four out of 10 pills contained enough fentanyl to kill someone. That was grim. But since then, it has gotten even worse. It’s now six out of 10. Pehlavanian believes prevention is key and drug education should be required statewide — starting in middle school.

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“My son didn’t have any clue [about fentanyl], and if he had known, he never would’ve taken that pill and he might be alive today,” Pehlivanian said.

Although she’s been getting traction, Pehlavanian admitted many schools are reluctant to have her speak about what happened to her son.

“Schools would then have to acknowledge that they have a drug problem,” Pehlivanian continued. “There’s that stigma attached, but the reality is, drugs are a problem.”

But Pehlavanian will keep pushing to share Trygve’s story in hopes of saving lives.

“I don’t want this to happen to another family,” Pehlivanian said. “My children have lost their big brother. It really is a painful thing and I don’t want another family to go through it. That’s what helps me to keep moving. To share his story, as painful as it is, that’s what keeps me going.”

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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