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Families grieving a loved one's death offered help through coroner support program

It's a first-of-its-kind family advocacy program in Colorado and focuses on deaths from suicides and overdoses.

DENVER — As more people die of a drug overdose in Denver County, there's a greater need for a program at the medical examiner's office – the Family Advocacy Support Team Program is less than a year old, and the first of its kind in Colorado. 

This team provides comfort and resources to those in the weeks following an unexpected death, such as an overdose or suicide.

"We know who is dying," said Meghan Clark, the program coordinator. "We know what they are dying from and we know who their loved ones are. So we can provide this outreach and support where they otherwise would not be receiving it."

Clark's background is in victim services. She used to be a part of a team that showed up to crime scenes after someone died in their home. According to Clark, in those cases, those families would be given a brochure and advocates walked family members through the next steps with a coroner investigator and then they would never reach out to family again. 

"Not because there wasn't a need, but because there wasn't an ability to do that with staffing," she said.

RELATED: Local hospital sees success with effort to combat opioid addiction, hopes to expand program in 2022

She began leading the family advocacy program in at the Denver County Medical Examiner's Office in June. 

"After family stops calling every day, after meals stop arriving and people start going to their every day lives, that is when we find people are needing the most help and when we can provide the most assistance," Clark said. 

Staff help people who are grieving after all kinds of deaths. The ones they really focus on are deaths from overdoses.

On Sunday, five people were found dead in an apartment in Commerce City after what police suspect was an accidental fentanyl overdose. 

RELATED: 5 found dead inside Commerce City apartment identified

"The family members that are left to grieve these types of losses feel things that maybe they wouldn't feel with another type of death," said Clark. "There is a lot of guilt and shame and embarrassment that can come with addiction, and losing somebody to opioids or fentanyl is a different kind of grief."

Many more families in Denver County are experienced this kind of grief. 

According to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE), there were 225 drug-related deaths in Denver County in 2019. That number jumped to 444 in 2021. DDPHE said nearly half of those deaths last year involved fentanyl. 

"I don't want people to feel they are isolated and alone in their grief," said Clark. 

She said the response from the community has been very positive, and she hopes other medical examiner offices will implement programs like the one in Denver County.

The Family Advocacy Support Tea program is looking for interns and volunteers.

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