Nashville Mayor Mourns Son's Overdose Death, Urges Families To Talk About Addiction

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 12:13 pm

The epidemic of drug overdose deaths has hit home for the mayor of Nashville, Tenn. Her 22-year-old son, Max Barry, died last month of an overdose near Denver.

And for the first time since tragedy struck her family, Mayor Megan Barry spoke publicly Monday to call on families to have frank and difficult conversations about addiction.

"I don't want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died. The reality is that Max overdosed on drugs," Barry said. "My hope is that it may inspire and encourage other parents out there ... and that if that saves one life, what a blessing."

The mayor, who resumed her work duties after nine days away, described a "new normal."

"I get to get up every day now and I don't ever get to talk to my son again," she said. "Max is not going to text me back. I'm not going to hear his voice again."

The mayor's mourning has been as public as can be. Civic leaders and hundreds of everyday citizens turned out to two open memorials, where Barry received hugs for hours.

While she didn't speak at the funeral, her husband, Bruce Barry, a Vanderbilt University business professor, did.

"We all — of all ages — have made incredible mistakes in our lives and we almost always walk away from them. And he made one that you don't walk away from," he said. "But the point I want to make here is the circumstances ... tell the story of his death and not the story of his life."

Friends and relatives paint Max Barry's life as one of humor and a love of the outdoors, which led him to the University of Puget Sound. He graduated in May.

Yet from the moment that his death became public, there was no hiding from the fact that an overdose claimed his life. The mayor said paramedics administered Narcan to her son — the anti-overdose medicine — but it didn't save his life.

Jefferson County, Colo., where the Barrys' son died, saw a 100 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2002 to 2014, according to the Colorado Health Institute. In Nashville, first responders have been carrying the antidote as overdose deaths rise. There were 261 overdoses in the city last year, prompting the mayor to budget for a new opioid specialist earlier this year. And Mayor Barry said she'll find ways to do even more, including using her platform.

"If you see another child who is struggling, don't ever hesitate to pick up the phone and call that parent," she said, "because parents, you know, sometimes we don't see everything that's in front of us."

She said her son — her only child — can never be replaced.

"But I know that with my faith and with my family and with my friends, we will get through this," she said. "The reality is that I'm back to work. And we have a lot of work to do in Nashville."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Nashville, Tenn., the opioid epidemic has become a personal tragedy for the mayor. Her 22-year-old son died last month in an apparent overdose. Mayor Megan Barry spoke about it publicly for the first time yesterday. Barry is calling for families to speak openly about addiction. Tony Gonzalez of member station WPLN has more.

TONY GONZALEZ, BYLINE: The knock on the mayor's door rustled her from bed around 3 a.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEGAN BARRY: And the way my transom is, is I can see through. So I could see a police officer.

GONZALEZ: She assumed, as mayor, that it was bad news, perhaps about a fallen officer or a family that needed to be consoled. But it was something else, something about her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. BARRY: And he told me that Max had passed away. And he had to repeat it several times because that was not what my brain could hear.

GONZALEZ: And then, days of mourning - and about as public as can be. Civic leaders and everyday citizens turned out to two open memorials, along with songwriter and family friend John Prine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PRINE: This is a song called "Souvenirs." This is for Max Barry. (Playing guitar).

GONZALEZ: The mayor received hugs for hours from hundreds who came. While she didn't speak at the funeral, her husband Bruce did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUCE BARRY: We all, of all ages, have made incredible mistakes in our lives. And we almost always walk away from them. And he made one that you don't walk away from. But the point I really want to make here is that the circumstances tell the story of his death and not the story of his life.

GONZALEZ: It was a life of humor and hiking and love of the outdoors. Yet, from the beginning, there was no hiding from the fact that an overdose claimed her son.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. BARRY: The reality is - is that Max overdosed on drugs. I don't know exactly what the combination of drugs was. But I do know, and we all know, that that's what caused him to die.

GONZALEZ: She says paramedics near Denver, where her son was living, administered Narcan, the anti-overdose medicine. But it didn't save his life. Nashville first responders have been carrying Narcan, too.

Overdoses have been increasing. There were 261 deaths in the city last year. And the mayor has budgeted for a new opioid specialist this year. She says she'll find ways to do even more, including using her platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. BARRY: If you see another child who is struggling, don't ever hesitate to pick up the phone and call that parent because parents, you know, sometimes we don't see everything that's in front of us.

GONZALEZ: The mayor had taken her son to rehab last summer before he completed his bachelor's degree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M. BARRY: Our hearts will always be sad and empty because we can never replace our child.

GONZALEZ: Mayor Megan Barry says her son's problems already inspired some of her policies. And now his death, which shows that overdoses can affect any family, will add urgency to her work. For NPR News, I'm Tony Gonzalez in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEARS OF RICE AND SALT'S "AMONGST YOUR EARTHIEST WORDS THE ANGELS STRAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.